Comparative Economic Studies

, Volume 50, Issue 1, pp 1–29 | Cite as

China's Agricultural Crisis and Famine of 1959–1961: A Survey and Comparison to Soviet Famines

  • Dennis Tao Yang
Survey Article


China's Great Leap Forward (GLF) of 1958–1961 ended as a catastrophe as widespread famine claimed millions of human lives. This paper reviews the literature on this historical crisis. The collapse of grain production was primarily attributable to failures in central planning that diverted agricultural resources to industry and to malnutrition among peasants, which lowered their productivity. The resulting decline in grain availability and the urban bias in China's food distribution system were the main causes of the famine. This paper also compares China's experience with the Soviet famines of 1931–1933 and 1947.


Central planning food supply famine urban bias China USSR 

JEL Classifications

I30 P21 Q11 O53 



I thank Meg Gottemoeller, James Kung, Ryan Monarch, James Wen, and two anonymous referees for making constructive suggestions and comments on earlier versions of this paper. I am also grateful for the financial support from the Center for China in the World Economy (CCWE) at Tsinghua University, where I carried out much of the research of this paper while serving as Senior Research Fellow at the CCWE.


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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dennis Tao Yang
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of EconomicsVirginia TechBlacksburgUSA
  2. 2.Department of EconomicsThe Chinese University of Hong KongShatinHong Kong

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