Politicians, economists and Mao’s Great Sparrow Campaign

maozedongThe Great Sparrow Campaign is a grotesque episode of the China’s Great Leap Forward campaign. It explains, in part, the Great Chinese Famine, in the late fifties and early sixties of the last century.

The Great Sparrow Campaign is responsible for many millions of deaths and was driven by immediate economic goals.

Surely the biggest responsible, the man behind the campaign, the ultimate mastermind of this grotesque episode, was Mao Zedong (1893-1976), the powerful leader of the communist revolution. The Great Leap Forward hasn’t been inspired by the economists of the regime, or by the inner workings of some specific economic school. It was mostly a political campaign. But it has an economic background, and a lack of economic sense that should be stressed.

But what was exactly the Great Sparrow Campaign?

The campaign was designed to kill billions of sparrows – literally. And it attained it. The reasoning behind it was very simple: sparrows eat grains; they are a cause of food scarcity, then should be killed.

Chinese citizens were mobilized to kill the birds. They were invited to scare them, by banging pots and pans or by beating drums. Sparrows were forced to fly until they fell from exhaustion. Their nests were torn down, nestlings were killed. Rewards and recognition were offered to kids and schools, and to worker organizations and government agencies in accordance with the number of birds they had killed.

When two years later the Chinese politicians realized that sparrows also ate a huge amount of insects, and that with the killing of birds the rice and other agricultural production had decreased sharply, it was too late.

In a country largely cut off from the rest of the world, the sharp decrease in food production, associated with swarms of locusts and other insects, had a dramatic impact. The decimation of the birds, compounded by the ecological problems caused by deforestation and industrialization campaigns, or the misuse of pesticides, were at the heart of the great starvation crisis known as the Great Chinese Famine, and the death of dozens of millions of people.
This grotesque episode, and all the lack of sensitivity, awareness and perspective that it reveals, is masterly documented in a few books:

Tombstone, the great Chinese famine
Mao’s Great Famine

There is also a small YouTube video, documenting the episode: Great sparrow campaign 1957.

But however grotesque and foolish the Great Sparrow Campaign was, we should not forget that there are many other foolish episodes happening before our eyes, and that they will affect the future of our children in a much more powerful and irreversible way. Climate change is happening all around us, fueled by our insensibility and awareness. It’s not just our industry and agriculture, and our transportation sector, and the fossil fuels we burn in them. It’s also the consumption of energy in our homes and buildings: responsible for about 40% of CO2 emissions.