Nancy Qian on China’s Great Famine

Image from NY Times.

I was surprised and pleased to find Nancy Qian on my department’s list of speakers for development and labor seminar series. I remember her paper on the missing women and price of tea for how well-articulated and convincing her argument was. This afternoon I finally had the pleasure to listen to her talking about the institutional causes of China’s great famine from 1959 to 1961. The working paper is here.

China’s great famine is not a new topic. Due to its unprecedented scale and the special policies China was pursuing at that time, it has attracted a lot of scholarly attention. While previous research has sought answers from rigidity of institutional arrangements and local officers’ zealousness to impress the central, this paper argues that the procurement policy of the central government is the main cause of the famine.

Here are a few facts about China’s great famine that you should know before reading the paper: First, deaths are mostly rural. Interestingly, the central government seemed to have controlled the spreading of news extremely well so that rural residents thought their urban relatives suffered just as much they did (from interviews with survivors). Secondly, estimated per capita average food availability is too high (2000+ calories) to be compatible with a famine. Lastly, there was considerable variation in food availability — a fact largely ignored by previous research but is the focus of Qian and her coauthors.

I was most impressed by how Qian and her coauthors navigate through different data sources for their purposes. They constructed two benchmarks of caloric levels for “food needed to survive”: a higher one for heavy adult labor and healthy child development, and a lower one for staying alive (from the Minnesota starvation experiment). They used USDA guidelines and adjusted total population by demographic breakdown. For grain production, they used post-Mao corrected data. Historic per capita consumption data were acquired from National Bureau of Statistics and aggregate procurement data from Ministry of Agriculture.

Measurement error is obviously a major concern here. Chinese statistics are known to be unreliable, and the fact that these data were collected in a period of unrest exacerbates this problem. to check the robustness of their findings, they used the 1990 birth cohort census (at the county level) as another proxy for the severity of the famine. The idea is: during the famine, couples are less likely to have children, and those who were born immediately before or during the famine were less likely to survive than individuals born after the famine. They addressed the measurement error problem in grain production by constructing predicted production from data on temperature, rainfall, and suitability to produce grains.

Nancy Qian is an impressive presenter. She provided sufficient background knowledge on the subject before going to the key model. She showed only graphs and figures which contained important facts to bear in mind or key insights from their model. The importance of helping your audience visualize your results cannot be understated.


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