The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day

Khalid Elhassan - January 30, 2022

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
A 1959 Chinese poster celebrates the extermination of the last few sparrows. Chinese Posters

5. The Chinese Government Was Not Exactly Big on Environmentalism

At the heart of the “Eliminate Sparrows Campaign” is the fact that Mao Zedong simply did not understand the natural world. In many ways, he actually despised nature and thought that it should give way to human needs and wants. Notions such as the need to live in harmony with the natural world and refrain from doing it harm were not popular or even known in his circle. To the extent that such ideas were even acknowledged, they were dismissed as backward spirituality and superstition harmful to progress, or decadent Western fru fru. The Maoist worldview, which was disseminated to the masses via propaganda, indoctrination, repression, censorship, and utopian promises, actively pitted humans against nature.

China’s communist government repeatedly urged people to “conquer nature“, and in 1958, Mao famously declared: “Make the high mountain bow its head; make the river yield the way“. In short, Mao was not exactly an environmentalist or conservationist. The notion that sparrows might have an important role in the maintenance of an ecological balance that benefitted people was alien to him and his acolytes. Mao’s subjects paid a dear price for the Chairman’s failure to grasp that. As seen below, implementation of the plan to exterminate sparrows was a significant factor in a disaster that killed tens of millions.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Locusts turned out to be far worse than sparrows. McLeod County Historical Society

4. The Plan to Wipe Out These Birds Contributed to the Deaths of Tens of Millions

While it is true that sparrows eat grain and fruits, it is also true that they eat insects as well – a whole lot of insects. Especially locusts, whose chief predator, the one that keeps their population in check, happens to be sparrows. Without sparrows, China’s locust population exploded, and they fell upon the country’s crops in massive swarms that blanketed the sky and obscured the Sun. The locusts ate up far more of China’s crops than sparrows had ever done. Rather than increase crop yields, the extermination of sparrows led to a huge decline in China’s available rice. In 1960, Mao ordered the removal of sparrows from the “Four Pests”, and had them replaced with bed bugs.

By then, it was too late. The locusts ate up so much grain that catastrophe ensued. Between the huge insect swarms and the mismanagement, incompetence, and turmoil that accompanied the Great Leap Forward, the country was plunged into what came to be known as The Great Chinese Famine. By the time it was over, tens of millions – some estimates go as high as 55 million – had starved to death or perished amidst the chaos and hardships. Eventually, after it had all but wiped out China’s native population of sparrows, the Chinese government was forced to import 250,000 of the small birds from the Soviet Union to replenish its stocks.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
A Chinese propaganda poster extols The Great Leap Forward. Chinese Posters

3. The Chinese Government’s Plan for Rapid Modernization

As seen above, the plan to exterminate sparrows was part of a wider and vast modernization campaign pushed by Chairman Mao, the Great Leap Forward. The aim was to drag China from its status as an overwhelmingly backward peasant society and transform it into a modern, industrialized, and powerful first-class great power. Unfortunately, Mao’s understanding of economics turned out to be just as faulty as his knowledge – or lack thereof – of the environment and the ecology. The results were disastrous.

A key factor in the catastrophe that unfolded was Mao’s wildly unrealistic expectations of just what could be accomplished with his rapid modernization program. A hallmark of the Great Leap Forward was the Chairman’s brainstorm that increased steel production – a benchmark of industrialization – need not wait for the development of infrastructures such as steel plants, or the training of a skilled workforce. Instead, intrepid Chinese could produce steel from blast furnaces in their communes – literal backyard furnaces. As seen below, that did not work out as well as the Chinese authorities had hoped.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Propaganda posters extol the production of steel during The Great Leap Forward. Pinterest

2. The Plan to Produce Steel in Backyard Furnaces Backfired

People went out of their way – or more accurately were forced to go out of their way – to satisfy the Great Leap Forward’s expectations of communal steel production. To meet the quotas demanded by the Chinese authorities, citizens used whatever fuel they could get their hands on to power the furnaces, from coal to wooden furniture to the wood of coffins. When they lacked iron ore, they melted whatever steel objects they could find in order to produce steel girders.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Peasants tend backyard furnaces during The Great Leap Forward. Alpha History

However, the manufacture of steel is complicated, and the artisanal girders produced were of low quality and cracked easily. What came out of the backyard furnaces was actually not even steel, but pig iron. It had to get its carbon removed in order to become steel. In some regions where there was little metalworking tradition or knowledge of metallurgy, the pig iron produced was too useless to get turned into steel. Still, that was not the worst part of the Great Leap Forward.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Chinese peasants toil on collectivized farms during The Great Leap Forward. Alpha History

1. A Modernization Plan That Backfired and Killed Tens of Millions

Mao and his followers sought to revolutionize China’s countryside, where most of the population toiled as peasants. So they prohibited private farms, and ordered mandatory agricultural collectivization. Private farm plots were combined into big fields that belonged to the entire community. The theory was that economies of scale would come into play, and the big collectivized fields would prove more efficient and productive than the small plots. However, poor planning led to poor implementation of collectivization, and the yield of the big fields turned out to be less than that of the private plots.

The Oddest Conspiracies that Ever Saw the Light of Day
Famished Chinese clamor for food amidst the famine caused by The Great Leap Forward. Pinterest

Additionally, the Great Leap Forward emphasized ideological purity and fervor, rather than competence. So collectivization was led by enthusiastic and zealous overseers, instead of capable and competent managers. A series of natural disasters from 1959 to 1961 made things worse. The result was history’s greatest manmade disaster. By 1960, it was obvious that the plan for the Great Leap Forward had not been well thought out, but by then it was too late. The diversion of labor from farms to ill-advised industries such as backyard furnaces, plus the disruptions of collectivization, combined to produce a catastrophe. Between 1959 to 1962, up to 55 million Chinese starved to death or otherwise perished because of the screw-ups caused by the Great Leap Forward.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Becker, Jasper – Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (1998)

Business Insider, May 17th, 2016 – Here’s the Story of How the Hunt Brothers Tried to Corner the Silver Market

Cookridge, E. H. – The Baron of Arizona (1967)

Cracked – 6 Flat-Out Crazy Conspiracy Theories (That Really Happened)

De Blecourt, Willem, and Davies, Owen – Witchcraft Continued: Popular Magic in Modern Europe (2004)

Discover Magazine, February 26th, 2014 – Paved With Good Intentions: Mao Tse Tung’s ‘Four Pests’ Disaster

Encyclopedia Britannica – Great Leap Forward

Fall, Bernard B. – Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1967)

Guardian, The, February 4th, 1999 – Zinoviev Letter Was Dirty Trick By MI6

Guardian, The, October 9th, 2014 – Satanic Panic: How British Agents Stoked Supernatural Fears in Troubles

History Collection – Conspiracy Theories About Our Founding Fathers

Imperial War Museums – Grenade, Anti-Tank, No 74 Mk I (‘Sticky Bomb’)

Independent, The, February 4th, 1999 – Official: Zinoviev Letter Was Forged

New York Times, December 15th, 2010 – Mao’s Great Leap to Famine

Powell, Donald M. – The Peralta Grant: James Addison Reavis and the Barony of Arizona (1960)

Petre, Francis Loraine – Napoleon’s Conquest of Prussia, 1806 (2004)

Priceonomics – How the Hunt Brothers Cornered the Silver Market and Then Lost it All

Shapiro, Judith – Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (2001)

Spartacus Educational – Zinoviev Letter

True West Magazine, November 21st, 2017 – The Great Swindler James Addison Reavis

Weeks, John – Men Against Tanks: A History of Anti-Tank Warfare (1975)

Wikimedia – James Reavis