Newly-released archives show Canadian officials dismissed one of the worst famines in history in approving grain sales to Maoist China. Trade officials found “no evidence” of mass food shortages, though millions starved to death. One visiting Canadian delegation in 1961 marveled that Chinese appeared ‘fairly well-fed’ and shops were full.
“There is no evidence to support a contention that the whole of China is suffering from conditions of starvation,” said a confidential foreign ministry memo The Extent And Impact Of Food Shortages In China. The country was “practically immune from the dangers of drought and flood,” the memo said.
Historians estimate 40 million people died in the period from 1958 to 1962 under a Communist Great Leap Forward campaign of collectivized farming and expropriation of crops by state planners. Reports by diplomats and trade officials who visited the country at the time have now been released by Library & Archives Canada under Access To Information.
The memo Food Shortages concluded while Chinese harvests appeared mediocre, “Under the Communist regime the increased efficiency of the transport system allied to the tight control of distribution has made large-scale famine on the traditional pattern less likely than in the past.”
“There is nothing new in the present scarcity,” the memo said; “The population is probably increasing by about two percent annually, and the ‘average’ harvest needed is therefore rising every year.”
Cabinet in 1961 sold 234 million bushels of Canadian grain to China in the largest export contract of its kind to that time. A Department of Finance memo noted the Chinese “made it very clear they wished to obtain the grain at the earliest possible date,” but discounted the possibility of famine.
“The advantages to Canada accruing from these agreements are obvious,” the finance department wrote. The contract for wheat and barley was valued at $362 million, the equivalent of nearly $3 billion today.
“A reason given by the Chinese to us during negotiations was that the purchase of Canadian wheat would enable China to export more rice, thereby resulting in a net foreign exchange gain because the international price of rice is higher than the price of wheat,” the department wrote. “There is some logic in this type of argument.”
Wheat Harvested By Hand
Modern-day researchers have uncovered evidence famine conditions drove China near collapse, documenting instances of homicide and cannibalism in the hardest-hit rural counties. Chinese state agencies to date have withheld official records detailing the extent of the catastrophe.
Canadian grain executives discounted reports of mass starvation. A confidential 1961 account of a three-week tour by the Board of Grain Commissioners said Chinese “seem fairly well-clothed, shod and fed”; “We ate bread in all five cities we visited,” wrote delegates.
“Building of new factories and apartments seems fairly extensive,” said the report Technical Mission To China 1961; “There is ample evidence of continued production of artistic work: brocades, embroidered silk, beautiful carving in ivory, jade, soapstone and wood; exquisite silver work and excellent jewelry.”
Technical Mission noted the touring Canadians were closely monitored – “two men traveled with us and heard all repeated discussions” – but dismissed evidence of unusual conditions. “In more than 24 hours of travel by train in daylight, we saw thousands of groups of 10 to 100 people or more, working in the fields with hand tools, only the occasional single animal pulling a cultivator between rows, and not a single tractor or farm machine,” Technical Mission said.
“Over a hundred people might be harvesting a field of wheat, handful by handful, with small sickles. Fourteen men were unloading a truckload of sacked grain at a mill elevator.”
“The colossal use of manpower in this operation, as elsewhere in China, was astounding,” the report concluded; “The extent to which manpower and womanpower replaces mechanical power and machines in China is remarkable.”
Other documents acknowledged Canadian delegations were restricted in their travels and invited to elaborate state banquets. One Wheat Board mission “saw virtually nothing of Chinese life”, said a memo. “Their time was completely regimented between negotiations and entertainment which included the Peking Opera, the world ping pong tournament, dinners, etcetera.”
By Tom Korski