Bad policy caused China’s great famine

Here’s an interesting tidbit from a paper (pdf) on the impacts of China’s great famine in 1959-61 by Xin Meng and Nancy Qian that’s full of interesting stuff:

Officially, the cause of the famine was a fall in grain output due to bad weather. Several recent studies have argued that although there was a fall in output, the “three years of natural disasters” (san nian zi ran zai hai ), was largely driven by a set of misguided policies (Kueh, 1995; Li and Yang, 2005; Peng, 1987; Yao, 1999; Yang, 1996; Chang and Wen, 1997; Perkins and
Yusuf, 1984; Lin, 1990). Using official aggregated data on historical weather conditions, Kueh (1995) finds that although bad weather was a contributing factor, it was unlikely to have caused the full extent of the grain reduction necessary to explain the severity of the famine…

We obtained historical climate data from China’s 205 permanent weather stations and county level data on non-famine grain output and survival. Figure 3A plots the annual mean precipitation and mean temperature by year in the eight provinces included in this study. There is no noticeable difference during the famine years. The relationship between natural conditions and grain output can be examined more directly. We use county-level grain output and weather conditions for non-famine years to estimate the correlation between natural conditions and output. We then use these estimates and climate data from 1959-1961 to predict output during the famine years. If the famine was caused by natural conditions, the predicted output for famine years should be significantly different from normal output. Instead, we find that the predicted output is highly correlated to actual non-famine output. Alternatively, we can also examine the correlation between survival and historical weather conditions. Figure 3B plots a proxy for survival at the county level (the ratio of famine birth cohort population in 1990 to non-famine birth cohort population in 1990) against weather conditions during the famine relative to normal periods (the ratio of famine period rainfall to non-famine rainfall, and the ratio of famine period temperature to non-famine temperature). There is no visible correlation. These results all show that the famine was unlikely to have been caused by “natural” disasters.

It seems that the real question is how much did Mao know?