episode 4

the great Leap forward

China, 1958

published the 6th February, 2016


Starving while grain was stockpiled

The tragic irony is that while people were starving, grain was being stockpiled in silos. Yields fell from 200 million to 143.5 million tons, but that is still a lot of food. The problem was that taxes were paid in kind on yields that were often over-estimated, leaving little to feed local people who did not dare complain for fear of being seen as counter-revolutionary reactionaries.

Recent estimates

The exact death toll will doubtless never be known, but recent estimates place it at over thirty million. The regime long underestimated the famine and refused to blame it on Mao’s plan. Yet the figures are plain : the birth rate dropped drastically at that point, while the death rate rose.

Counter-revolutionary hunger

The handful of brave souls who dared mention the famine were suspected of counter-revolutionary tendencies. One Chinese journalist wrote in 2008 :

In the second half of 1959, I took a long-distance bus from Xinyang to Luoshan and Gushi. Out of the window, I saw one corpse after another in the ditches. On the bus, no one dared to mention the dead. In one county, Guangshan, one-third of the people had died. Although there were dead people everywhere, the local leaders enjoyed good meals and fine liquor. … I had seen people who had told the truth being destroyed.1 Did I dare to write it?

Peng Dehuai, the Red Army’s commander-in-chief, criticised the Greap Leap Forward in writing. He spent the rest of his life in prison.



Other man-made famines include the Irish Great Famine of 1845-51, caused by potato blight, which killed a million people – over 10% of the Irish population – and the Soviet famine of 1931-33, which killed between four and eight million people in what are now Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.



  1. Wikipedia (the Great Leap Forward)
  2. Wikipedia (the great famine)


  1. Philippe Grangereau, Le Grand mensonge, Revue XXI n°17, hiver 2012, Paris.