Research Archive

The Institutional Causes of China's Great Famine, 1959-1961

Xin Meng, Nancy Qian, Pierre Yared

Publication type: Working paper

Research Archive Topic: Business Economics and Public Policy, World Business


This paper studies the causes of China's Great Famine, during which approximately thirty million individuals died in rural areas. We document that average rural food retention during the famine was too high to generate a severe famine without rural inequality in food availability; that there was significant variance in famine mortality rates across rural regions; and that rural mortality rates were positively correlated with per capita food production, a surprising pattern that is unique to the famine years and one that cannot be explained by existing theories of the causes of famine. We provide evidence that an inflexible and progressive government procurement policy where procurement was increasing in target production was necessary for generating this pattern.
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Meng, Xin, Nancy Qian, and Pierre Yared. "The Institutional Causes of China's Great Famine, 1959-1961." Working Paper, Columbia Business School, 2013.

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