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Terrain ruggedness and limits of political repression: Evidence from China’s Great Leap Forward and Famine (1959-61)


  • Gooch, Elizabeth


Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward development plan strongly affected food security in rural China at the time, given that many of the associated policies exploited rural labor and extracted resources. A few months after the plan’s initial implementation in August 1958, food shortages were reported; by the spring of 1961, more than 30 million citizens had died of starvation and famine-related illnesses. However, as the national plan was rolled out and then upheld over three years, on-the-ground implementation was nonuniform. Using georeferenced terrain ruggedness data which captures small-scale topological irregularities and information on provincial leadership attitudes towards Mao’s plan, I provide evidence on forces underlying the famine’s intensity and distribution. The analysis is based on a differential effect, in which a fear-based incentive structure characterizing the plan’s implementation is implicitly embedded. The baseline results indicate that rugged terrain protected more than 4.6 million rural Chinese from dying in the famine. By identifying an additional benefit of ruggedness to health and well-being in some rural communities, I show that not only does a causal relationship exist at a local level between Great Leap policies and famine mortality, but also that the lethality of the policies varied per state power at the time.

Suggested Citation

  • Gooch, Elizabeth, 2019. "Terrain ruggedness and limits of political repression: Evidence from China’s Great Leap Forward and Famine (1959-61)," Journal of Comparative Economics, Elsevier, vol. 47(4), pages 827-852.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jcecon:v:47:y:2019:i:4:p:827-852
    DOI: 10.1016/j.jce.2019.08.001

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    More about this item


    China; Geography; Food security; History; Causality; State power; Forced labor; Political economy; Institutions; GIS;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • Q18 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Agriculture - - - Agricultural Policy; Food Policy; Animal Welfare Policy
    • H1 - Public Economics - - Structure and Scope of Government
    • P2 - Political Economy and Comparative Economic Systems - - Socialist and Transition Economies
    • N35 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - Asia including Middle East
    • N45 - Economic History - - Government, War, Law, International Relations, and Regulation - - - Asia including Middle East
    • N55 - Economic History - - Agriculture, Natural Resources, Environment and Extractive Industries - - - Asia including Middle East
    • N95 - Economic History - - Regional and Urban History - - - Asia including Middle East


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