Not Solely a Soviet Phenomenon: Policy, Famine, and Cannibalism in Mao's China

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, much archival information has been released revealing the extent of famine in Soviet-controlled Ukraine in the early 1930s. The information is stunning. Some four million people are estimated to have perished during this period of starvation, known in Ukraine as the “Holodomor.”[i]

            According to Ukranian speakers, the term Holodomor is said to mean “artificial hunger, organized on a vast scale by a criminal regime against a country's population.”[ii] The key word in this long description is artificial. The reason for this period of mass starvation was not crop disease as it had been in the Great Irish Famine, but rather government policy. In order to meet the meet the demands of Stalin’s programs for massive economic output, incredible amounts of grain were forcefully taken and exported to other European countries, leaving little or no grain for peasants to subsist on.

            Personal accounts written by survivors of the Holodomor are both numerous and shocking. According to Survivor Ekaterina Marchenko:

“I have no idea how I managed to survive and stay alive. In 1933 we tried to survive the best we could. We collected grass, goose-foot, burdocks, rotten potatoes and made pancakes, soups from putrid beans or nettles. Collected gley from the trees and ate it, ate sparrows, pigeons, cats, dead and live dogs. When there was still cattle, it was eaten first, then - the domestic animals. Some were eating their own children, I would have never been able to eat my child. One of our neighbours came home when her husband, suffering from severe starvation ate their own baby-daughter. This woman went crazy.”[iii]

Despite these appalling first-hand accounts, artificial famine and cannibalism were not phenomena limited to Ukraine in the 1930s. In fact, as far as sheer numbers are concerned, the Holodomor pales in comparison to the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1962.

            Utilizing many of the same strategies as the Soviet Union twenty-five years earlier, China under Mao launched its “Great Leap Forward,” a program designed to rapidly collectivize and industrialize China’s economy. Ill-conceived and unscientific agricultural and industrial policies precipitated mass famine and rampant cannibalism, resulting in an estimated thirty to fifty million deaths.[iv]   

            Mao believed that peasants, unskilled industrial workers, could drive China’s industrial growth. Fields were often left fallow while peasants toiled to make steel from scrap metal in crude backyard furnaces. Naturally, the infrastructure built by unskilled laborers typically fell to ruin within years of completion and millions starved. In addition to backyard steel production, the CCP unveiled its plan to greatly increase agricultural production; this policy became known as “close planting.”  In effect, the CCP ordered farmers to plant much more seed in any given area than the land could feasibly support. Moreover, farmers were instructed to over-fertilize the already saturated land. The results were disastrous. China’s crop output fell dramatically and its fields were poisoned by the absurd levels of fertilizer. Compounding the problem further, Local CCP officials who feared retaliation from their superiors fabricated production reports to claim they met the Party’s impossible grain quotas. This dishonesty led Beijing to believe that grain quotas were indeed being met, thus what little grain was harvested China exported to other countries. Before the quagmire could be fully realized, some five percent of China’s population perished.

            Former political prisoner Harry Wu, a survivor of the Great Chinese Famine, recently described his experience of being in one of China’s many forced labor camps at the height of the famine. Although Wu never resorted to cannibalism, Wu was nonetheless never the same after suffering through China’s famine:

“During this time, the Great Famine was wreaking havoc in all regions of China. Even those industrial workers who were loyal to the Communist Party were also starving. Thus, the prisoners in forced labor camps could only struggle to get by. I was always hungry. I started to steal cucumber and Chinese cabbage from the police’s vegetable garden. My best friend, Mr. Xing, was in an even worse condition. He would blatantly steal and eat other prisoners’ food at meal times. He tried once to escape. However, faced with a place rampant with famine like China, he had no place to buy or even beg or steal food. Thus, he could only give himself up and come back to the camp in order to rely on the consistent rationed food to survive. Every morning, the chef would use a ladle to serve into our bowls a thin porridge made from corn powder and crushed corncob, and another bag of soy powder to be used as seasoning. We would carefully count every spoon, because every spoon meant survival. Whenever we had meals, there would be some people lying on the bed, unwilling to get up. This would be the only way we know they were already dead. Their thin bodies were then lifted up and carried away, and new prisoners would arrive when night fell.”[v]


As alluded to in Wu’s testimony, outside China’s prison camps the famine was similarly extensive. For example, in Sichuan province, a predominantly rural province, the death toll stood at a remarkable eight million.[vi] In large cities, such as Beijing or Shanghai, the famine was less prevalent but nonetheless felt. Despite the intense starvation felt in the labor camps during the Great Chinese Famine, prisoner testimony suggests that the repercussions of being caught cannibalizing deterred the urge to cannibalize. That same urge often went unabated outside the labor camp system.

According to Frank Dikotter, cases of cannibalism during the Great Leap Forward first began in Yunnan in 1958. “At first the carcasses of diseased livestock were unearthed, but as famine tightened its grip some people eventually dug-up, boiled and ate human bodies.”[vii] Official and detailed reports of cannibalism and starvation in general for that matter, are hard to come by. In fact, “few reports were ever systematically compiled. Under a regime in which the mere mention of famine could land a cadre in trouble, cases of cannibalism were covered up wherever they appeared.”[viii] When cases of cannibalism were reported, there was a concerted effort to absolve the Party of all responsibility. For example, an official investigation into cannibalism by the Gansu provincial wing of the Communist Party noted that the reason Yang Zhongsheng killed and ate his brother Yang Sanshun was due to shenghuo wenti, translated best as “livelihood issues.” The Party also used the same reason, “livelihood issues,” to explain why Changpin Fan dug out the corpse of his buried father and proceeded to eat him. It is this bureaucratic detachment that has come to characterize the culture of Mao’s totalitarian state. Effectively labeling the individual as delinquent, the Party attempted to deflect responsibility and absolve itself from any wrongdoing during the famine period.

Ironically, despite distancing itself from the rampant cannibalism during the Great Chinese Famine, the Party often embraced savage acts of Cannibalism as a means of proving ones loyalty during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. According to one scholar:

This process began with the accusation and denunciation of the selected "class enemies," continued with their bludgeoning and dismembering, and ended with their partial consumption. After having been bludgeoned to death, some of their organs—their hearts, livers, and occasionally their genitals—were cut out, sometimes even before the victims died. Then these body parts were cooked and eaten by the assembled dignitaries in what were labeled "human flesh banquets.” These "banquets" were particularly widespread in the Province of Guangxi, where even the minor children of the former ruling classes were tortured and killed. As an example, a sixty-eight-year-old peasant caught the minor son of the former landlord, slit his chest open in front of everyone, and watched the boy die in agony. When questions about his deed by an investigating reporter, he boastfully declared: "Yes, I killed him.... The person I killed is an enemy.... Ha, ha! I make revolution, and my heart is red! Didn't Chairman Mao say: 'It's either we kill them, or they kill us?' You die and I live, this is class struggle!’”[ix]

            Although cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution has not been widely reported, its significance should not be downplayed. Along with a litany of other brutal human rights violations, cannibalism can be seen as a fitting product of Mao’s Communist State, which, albeit a few generations removed from its vicious revolutionary campaigns, still holds power today.


[ii]  Голодомор, in "Velykyi tlumachnyi slovnyk suchasnoi ukrainsʹkoi movy: 170 000 sliv", chief ed. V. T. Busel, Irpin, Perun (2004), ISBN 966-569-013-2

[iv] Dikötter, Frank (15 December 15, 2010). "Mao's Great Leap to Famine".International Herald Tribune.

[v] Transcript from oral interview with Harry Wu (2/13/2012)

[vi] Dikkoter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine. (328)

[vii] Dikotter, 320.

[viii] Dikotter, 321.

Laogai Research Foundation
The Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) was established in 1992 by Laogai survivor, Harry Wu, to gather information on and raise public awareness of the Laogai—China's extensive system of forced-labor prison camps. LRF also works to document and publicize other systemic human rights violations in China, including executions and the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners, the coercive enforcement of China's "one-child" population control policy, and Internet censorship and surveillance. LRF serves as an authoritative source for journalists, researchers, politicians, and other human rights organizations on human rights in China generally and the Laogai and forced labor in China specifically.
Harry Wu, Founder
Laogai Museum Front Desk

Harry Wu knows firsthand the atrocious conditions of the Laogai. In 1960, Wu was imprisoned at the age of 23 for criticizing the Communist Party, and subsequently spent 19 years toiling in the factories, mines, and fields of the Laogai.

He was released in 1979 and came to the US in 1985 with just $40 in his pocket. Since then, he has traveled back to China multiple times to further invesitgate Laogai camps and continue his call for human rights in China.

Wu founded the Laogai Research Foundation in 1992 to gather information on and raise public awareness of the Chinese Laogai.

LRF's mission is to document and expose the Laogai, China's vast and brutal system of forced labor prison camps, and to promote education, advocacy, and dialogue about China's human rights issues.
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Laogai Museum Front Desk

The Laogai Museum is the first museum in the U.S. to directly address human rights in China. It is the hope of the Laogai Research Foundation that the Laogai Museum will preserve the memory of the Laogai's countless victims and serve to educate the public about the atrocities committed by China's Communist regime. First founded in 2008 with the support of the Yahoo! Human rights Fund, the museum reopened in its present location in 2011, becoming a place for human rights victims and advocates to reach out to a larger audience.

The Laogai Research Foundation
1734 20th Street, Northwest
Washington, DC 20009

We are two blocks north of Dupont Circle Metro's North Exit on the Red Line (corner of 20th and S Streets).

Free 2-hour and metered street parking is available throughout the neighborhood.

Hours of Operation

Monday – Friday 10:00 AM – 06:00 PM
Saturday 10:00 AM – 05:00 PM

(202) 730-9308


The Laogai Archives are in the offices of the Laogai Research Foundation in Washington, DC.

Due to the suppression of free speech within China, much of the material housed within the Laogai Archives is not available to researchers in mainland China. Thus, the Laogai Archives are in a unique position to support academics, journalists, students, and activists in freely conducting research on human rights in China.

  1. What is the Laogai?
    The Laogai is the People’s Republic of China’s prison system. The name of the system is derived from the Chinese expression, laodong gaizao (勞動改造) meaning “reform through labor”. Generally referred to as labor reform camps (勞改隊), the prison system’s structure was developed by the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong. Modeled on the Soviet Gulag, the prison forces prisoners to do hard labor and gives them “political reeducation” to reform their thoughts and behaviors. The PRC also uses the Laogai as a source of free labor for various work, from infrastructure construction and mining, to farming and manufacturing. Through a variety of prison enterprises, the Chinese government earns income off the backs of Laogai prisoners.
    The Chinese definition of the Laogai entails six components.
      “Reform through labor camps or brigades” house officially convicted and sentenced criminals.

      In 1994, the Chinese government stopped using the word of “laogai,” instead it restored the traditional name of jianyu (prison). But the nature of the laogai system as a tool of rerpression remains the same.

      “Reeducation through labor facilities” house prisoners under “administrative discipline,” meaning that they may be sentenced to up to three years of forced labor without ever having been charged or tried.

      Detention centers house prisoners who are awaiting trial or have gone through a trial but the sentenced prison term is less than one year. They too can be forced to labor.

      Juvenile offender facilities house adolescent convicts or reeducation through labor detainees. In 1983, a regulation was issued that decreased the age from 16 to 14 years old at which children can be sent to reeducation through labor camps.

      These facilities were for prisoners who had served out their sentences but were deemed “not completely reformed.” Such prisoners had to stay in the same prison facility, facing the same conditions, and performing the same work just as when they were formal prisoners. The CCP ceased the forced job placement system in the early 1980s.
  2. How is the Laogai different from other prison systems?

    Because of international attention to human rights violations in the Laogai in the early 1990s, the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to create the impression that the Laogai is only a prison system for detaining, punishing, and reforming criminals. It was for this reason that in 1994, the CCP ordered that Laogai, meaning “reform through labor,” no longer be used in government documents. Instead, the system’s institutions were to be called jianyu, “prison.” However, contrary to CCP propaganda, the Laogai is different from prison systems in other countries. Laogai inmates are forced to labor and forced to do brain wash. What is more, they are unprotected by law, including laws against torture and abuse, as can be seen in the following section “Difference in Conditions.” The Laogai system also strengthens the CCP’S control by suppressing dissent among the Chinese people. The Laogai is an integral part of China’s economy, providing an abundance of free labor for manufacturing goods sold in both domestic and international markets.
    The conditions that persist in the Laogai constitute an additional distinction between it and other prison systems, with the Laogai perpetuating many of China’s most serious human rights abuses.

  3. Who has suffered in the Laogai?
  4. What is the political function of the Laogai system?
    Besides punishing criminals, the Laogai serves as a tool of political repression. China sentences outspoken critics of CCP policy to imprisonment in the Laogai to quell dissent. Suspects punishable by means of laogai or prison terms include the previous “anti-revolutionaries” and present-day “endangering state security” according to the Criminal Law. Suspects punishable by means of Re-education Through Labor according to the CCP’S “Measures for Reeducation through Labor (1957)” include, “counterrevolutionary and anti-socialist reactionaries, whose crimes are minor and not subject to criminal prosecution, and who have been dismissed by government offices, organizations, and enterprises, educational institutions or other units and have no way to make a living.”
    Fear and submission to CCP rule are also perpetuated by recurring “strike hard” campaigns. During these campaigns Chinese authorities implement various penalties, public trials, and previously, public executions, to intimidate its citizens and clamp down on political “crimes”. Trials and sentencing occur rapidly, and those accused of a crime are deemed guilty even before trial. It is under these circumstances that the CCP has continually silenced dissidents.
  5. What is the economic significance of the Laogai?
    Besides being important to China’s communist regime as a tool of repression, the Laogai is also an integral part of China’s economy. Chinese authorities use the millions locked in the Laogai as free labor. Totaling an estimated three to five million, they make up the world’s largest forced labor population. The CCP seeks to use the Laogai for profit.
    Forced labor is seen as another input for economic output. The deliberate application of forced labor by the Chinese government is codified in the Ministry of Justice Criminal Reform Handbook: “Laogai facilities…organize criminals in labor and production, thus creating wealth for society. Our Laogai units are both facilities of dictatorship and special enterprise.” The CCP hopes that by being forced to labor in the Laogai, prisoners will be molded into “new socialist persons.”
  6. Are Laogai goods exported?
    While much of what is produced in the Laogai is consumed domestically, Laogai-made goods also filter into foreign markets by way of third-party trading companies. Recently, rather than attempting to do business directly with foreign companies, Laogai prisons will find a government-owned trading company to act as a middleman and conceal the forced-labor origins of products from importers. Many Laogai prisons also have a second enterprise name; for example, Jinzhou Prison, where Nobel Laureate and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo is believed to be held, also operates under the name “Jinzhou Xinsheng Switch, Co.”, which it uses to market its products to foreign companies over the internet. LRF has evidence that shows Laogai goods repeatedly find their way onto American shelves, despite laws forbidding their importation. Notwithstanding the Chinese government’s claims to the contrary, the CCP encourages exporting Laogai goods.
  7. What is existing U.S. law regarding the importation of Laogai goods?
    Importing forced-labor goods to the U.S. is illegal according to section 1307 of the Tariff Act of 1930. In 1992, the need to confront China about this problem led to the signing of the “Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China on Prohibiting Import and Export Trade in Prison Labor Products.” However, China still exports prison labor goods to the U.S. To promote compliance with MOU’s terms, in 1994, the U.S. and China negotiated another agreement: the “Statement of Cooperation on the 1992 MOU between the U.S. and the PRC on Prohibiting Import and Export Trade in Prison Labor Products” (SOC). The SOC defines a mechanism to ensure that China promptly cooperates with U.S. Customs on forced labor inquiries. However, China has done nothing to ensure compliance, and the U.S. never committed resources to enforce the agreement. According to the 1997 “State Department Country Reports on Human Rights,” U.S. Customs unsuccessfully pursued eight standing visitation requests, seven of which dated back to 1995. In all cases, visitation requests were refused or ignored, and allegations were denied without explanation. Cooperation was judged as “inadequate.” In State Department reports from 1999, authorities admit that the MOU has been “nearly impossible” to enforce because China has been “uncooperative.” Throughout the 1990s, only around 20 cases of forced-labor product importation were pursued under the U.S. customs ban. Since 2000, the U.S. government has not attempted to restrict the flow of Laogai goods into the country.
  8. How can I avoid buying products made in the laogai?
    Identifying goods that are made entirely or in part in the Laogai is increasingly difficult. Sub-contracting and complicated global supply chains make discerning the origins of a product daunting. For example, a U.S. clothing maker may contact a Chinese import-export company to find a Chinese plant to cheaply make its clothing. That company may then contract the account to a legitimate Chinese textile firm, which will further sub-contract a portion of the production process to a Laogai camp, where prisoners must fill quotas to earn their food rations, rather than money. Laogai prisoners, toiling in horrible conditions, may also have grown the cotton the clothes are made from. If a product is “made in China” then it is possible it could have been produced in a Laogai.
  9. Should consumers boycott goods made in China?
  10. Are organs harvested from executed prisoners in the Laogai?
  11. What is the "One Child Policy"?
  12. Why do so few know about the Laogai?
  13. What does international law say about the Laogai?
  14. Who is Harry Wu?
  15. What is the Laogai Research Foundation?