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The Production of Death in ‘Chinese Proportions’: Utsa Patnaik on the Great Leap Forward Famine

by Hu De | 9 October 2009 | 8 Comments | Last modified: 5 Oct 4:21 pm

Utsa Patnaik: “On Famine and Measuring ‘Famine Deaths.’” Thinking Social Science in India: Essays in Honour of Alice Thorner. Ed. Sujata Patel, Jasodhara Bagchi, and Krishna Raj. New Delhi: Sage, 2002.

This is a long, dense and rigorous critique of the ways in which the death toll of the Great Leap Forward famine has been produced or ‘socially constructed.’ More specifically it is a sustained engagement with the so-called pioneering work of Banister, Coale and Amartya Sen on the issue. From the inclusion of the “unborn” among the famine victims to the unreliability of both the Chinese data (poor censuses, incomplete statistical yearbooks of the 1980s) and moreover the dodgy, backward-projected estimates of the Western demographers in terms of projected and linear birth and death ‘trends’, this is also a classic study of how academics and intellectuals produce the truth.

Prof. Patnaik is a political economist and economic historian at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. Her work on rural development, the politics of hunger, and Indian and global economic history is highly regarded at home and internationally. We post her article here also in the hopes that those with an interest in China will use it to revisit their understanding of this and other famines, and to explore her work more generally. (This essay is posted here with her permission.)


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