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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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