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The Institutional Causes of China's Great Famine, 1959-61


  • Meng, Xin
  • Qian, Nancy
  • Yared, Pierre


This paper investigates the institutional causes of China's Great Famine. It presents two empirical findings: 1) in 1959, when the famine began, food production was almost three times more than population subsistence needs; and 2) regions with higher per capita food production that year suffered higher famine mortality rates, a surprising reversal of a typically negative correlation. A simple model based on historical institutional details shows that these patterns are consistent with government policy failure in a centrally planned economy in which the government is unable to easily collect and respond to new information in the presence of an aggregate shock to production.

Suggested Citation

  • Meng, Xin & Qian, Nancy & Yared, Pierre, 2010. "The Institutional Causes of China's Great Famine, 1959-61," CEPR Discussion Papers 8012, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  • Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:8012

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Martin L. Weitzman, 1974. "Prices vs. Quantities," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 41(4), pages 477-491.
    2. Gale Johnson, D., 1998. "China's great famine: Introductory remarks," China Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 9(2), pages 103-109.
    3. Dennis Tao Yang, 2007. "China's Agricultural Crisis and Famine of 1959-61: A Survey and Comparison to Soviet Famines," Working Papers e07-4, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Department of Economics.
    4. Wei Li & Dennis Tao Yang, 2005. "The Great Leap Forward: Anatomy of a Central Planning Disaster," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 113(4), pages 840-877, August.
    5. Zeckhauser, Richard J, 1996. "The Economics of Catastrophes," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 12(2-3), pages 113-140, May.
    6. Carol H. Shiue, 2002. "Transport Costs and the Geography of Arbitrage in Eighteenth-Century China," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 92(5), pages 1406-1419, December.
    7. Martin Ravallion, 1997. "Famines and Economics," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 35(3), pages 1205-1242, September.
    8. Lin, Justin Yifu & Yang, Dennis Tao, 2000. "Food Availability, Entitlements and the Chinese Famine of 1959-61," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 110(460), pages 136-158, January.
    9. Matthew E. Kahn, 2005. "The Death Toll from Natural Disasters: The Role of Income, Geography, and Institutions," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 87(2), pages 271-284, May.
    10. Lin, Justin Yifu, 1990. "Collectivization and China's Agricultural Crisis in 1959-1961," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 98(6), pages 1228-1252, December.
    11. Dasgupta, Partha & Ray, Debraj, 1986. "Inequality as a Determinant of Malnutrition and Unemployment: Theory," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 96(384), pages 1011-1034, December.
    12. O'Rourke, Kevin, 1994. "The Economic Impact of the Famine in the Short and Long Run," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(2), pages 309-313, May.
    13. Weitzman, Martin L, 1970. "Iterative Multilevel Planning with Production Targets," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 38(1), pages 50-65, January.
    14. Shiue, Carol H., 2004. "Local Granaries and Central Government Disaster Relief: Moral Hazard and Intergovernmental Finance in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century China," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 64(01), pages 100-124, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Yang Yao & Nancy Qia & Monica Martinez Bravo & Gerard Padro i Miquel, 2011. "Do Local Elections in Non-Democracies Increase Accountability? Evidence from Rural China," Working Papers id:3931, eSocialSciences.
    2. Xu, Guo, 2011. "Long-run consequences of natural disasters: Evidence from Tangshan," Proceedings of the German Development Economics Conference, Berlin 2011 82, Verein für Socialpolitik, Research Committee Development Economics.
    3. Monica Martinez-Bravo & Gerard Padró i Miquel & Nancy Qian & Yang Yao, 2012. "Elections in China," NBER Working Papers 18101, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Douglas Almond & Hongbin Li & Shuang Zhang, 2013. "Land Reform and Sex Selection in China," NBER Working Papers 19153, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Martinez-Bravo, Monica & Padro, Gerard & Qian, Nancy & Yao, Yang, 2012. "The Effects of Democratization on Public Goods and Redistribution: Evidence from China," CEPR Discussion Papers 8975, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    6. Huang, Cheng & Phillips, Michael R. & Zhang, Yali & Zhang, Jingxuan & Shi, Qichang & Song, Zhiqiang & Ding, Zhijie & Pang, Shutao & Martorell, Reynaldo, 2013. "Malnutrition in early life and adult mental health: Evidence from a natural experiment," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 97(C), pages 259-266.

    More about this item


    central planning; development; food procurement; institutions; modern Chinese history; prices vs. quantities;

    JEL classification:

    • N45 - Economic History - - Government, War, Law, International Relations, and Regulation - - - Asia including Middle East
    • P2 - Economic Systems - - Socialist Systems and Transition Economies


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