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

  • Xin Meng
  • Nancy Qian
  • Pierre Yared

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 the policy outcomes 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.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 16361.

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Date of creation: Sep 2010
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16361
Note: POL
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  1. Kevin H. O'Rourke, 1993. "The economic impact of the famine in the short and long run," Working Papers 199331, School of Economics, University College Dublin.
  2. Weitzman, Martin L, 1970. "Iterative Multilevel Planning with Production Targets," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 38(1), pages 50-65, January.
  3. Gale Johnson, D., 1998. "China's great famine: Introductory remarks," China Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 9(2), pages 103-109.
  4. Zeckhauser, Richard J, 1996. "The Economics of Catastrophes," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 12(2-3), pages 113-40, May.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. M. L. Weitzman, 1973. "Prices vs. Quantities," Working papers 106, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
  8. Dasgupta, Partha & Ray, Debraj, 1986. "Inequality as a Determinant of Malnutrition and Unemployment: Theory," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 96(384), pages 1011-34, December.
  9. 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.
  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 1228-52, December.
  11. Martin Ravallion, 1997. "Famines and Economics," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 35(3), pages 1205-1242, September.
  12. 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.
  13. 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 136-58, January.
  14. 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.
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