Carnegie Cites Mainstream Media’s Failure to Report China’s Deadly Famine

The Other China: Hunger Part I - The Three Red Flags of Death

The mainstream press is a powerful force for information, but can also be a destructive force when it ignores the needs of its readers and only provides biased information — or does not report information.

From 1959 to 1961, China experienced the deadliest famine in modern history, leading to the deaths of an estimated 20-43 million people. However, the full extent of this catastrophe went largely unreported by the mainstream Western press at the time.

The Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s campaign to rapidly industrialize and collectivize China, was the primary driver of this man-made disaster. Inefficient agricultural practices combined with natural disasters led to widespread crop shortages and starvation, especially in rural areas.

Yet China had closed itself off from foreign observers who may have reported on the famine. The few visiting foreigners were heavily supervised by government minders. Even many urban Chinese were oblivious to the full extent of the crisis unfolding in the countryside.

Intrepid journalists Miriam and Ivan London managed to piece together the horrifying reality from refugee interviews in Hong Kong. Their tireless reporting finally revealed the scale of the famine from 1965 to 1975. However, their dispatches were largely disregarded by major publications.

Possible reasons include pro-Communist sympathy among left-leaning academics and reporters at the time. Some may have been reluctant to thoroughly condemn Mao’s regime. Mainstream papers also lacked their own network of sources to confirm the ground realities.

Whatever the reasons, the Western media’s failure to adequately investigate and report on the famine was a grievous oversight. Millions perished while cut off from the world’s awareness. Earlier intervention could have saved countless lives.

The Great Leap famine remains a taboo subject in China today. But its scale underscores the need for a vigorous, independent press to expose even the most uncomfortable truths without fear or agenda. A well-informed public is power. Had the famine been common knowledge sooner, pressure could have mounted to change disastrous policies.

This somber chapter in history is a reminder that the media’s role as an impartial, investigative watchdog is sometimes a matter of life and death. We cannot afford to repeat such failures.

Few outside China knew what was going on. The country was closed to the outside world, and visiting foreigners were carefully supervised. Indeed, many urban Chinese had no idea just how bad the situation was, as the countryside suffered the most. Over a ten-year period from 1965-75, Miriam and Ivan D. London interviewed Chinese refugees across the border in Hong Kong and doggedly reported on the real story. Their reports were read avidly by many China watchers, but mostly ignored by the mainstream press.

The Other China: Hunger Part I – The Three Red Flags of Death

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