I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Rats, mosquitoes, flies and, sparrows had targets placed on them by China's dictator Mao Zedong. In 1958, the country's population was mobilized to eliminate these four pests on the grounds they either spread disease or ate food that people needed. The program was a spectacular failure.
When the Communists took over China in 1949, they inherited a country in which disease was rampant—cholera, bubonic plague, malaria, tuberculosis, polio, and smallpox were endemic. Infant mortality rates hit 300 per 1,000 live births (at the same time, the infant mortality rate in the United States was 31 per 1,000 live births).
The government began an enormous public health initiative that involved mass vaccination programs and building proper sanitation systems to provide clean drinking water. But, medical resources were limited so a scheme was hatched to rid the country of disease-carrying agents—rats, flies, and mosquitoes, with sparrows thrown in because they ate grain.
Discover magazine reports that the “public health good would be implemented by everyone—from troupes of children to the elderly—with beautifully illustrated posters released to the masses that encouraged the wielding of fly swatters, guns, and gongs against the regime’s diminutive enemies.”
This was all part of Mao's Great Leap Forward program that aimed to drag China out of the Middle Ages and into the 20th century. Much of the scheme was built around Mao's belief that nature was there to be exploited, as exemplified in his statement “Make the high mountain bow its head; make the river yield the way.”
As others have discovered, nature is an implacable foe and it always wins.
The Great Sparrow Campaign
The Eurasian tree sparrow, although small, was deemed to be a pest of gigantic proportions because of its fondness for grain. Scientists worked out that a single sparrow ate 4.5 kg (10 pounds) of grain each year. Furiously working their saunpans (abacuses) the boffins figured out that if a million sparrows were killed enough food for 60,000 people would be made available.
When Chairman Mao saw those numbers he ordered total war on sparrows.
Millions of people went out into the streets each evening banging pots, pans, and drums to frighten the birds into flight. The noise kept them in the air so they were unable to find a perch for the night. Eventually, they crashed to the ground from exhaustion and those that were not already dead were sent into oblivion with whacks from sticks and other implements.
Children were mobilized to bring down the birds with catapults while adults used guns. Nests and their eggs were destroyed. Frequently quoted is an excitable Shanghai newspaper account of a day in the war on sparrows: “By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.” A rather precise number for an estimate. Hmm?
The carnage was monumental. Of course, there were no party members counting the cadavers, but one estimate is that a billion sparrows died in Mao's purge.
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Death to the Disease Carriers
The other three pests were given the death sentence because of the sicknesses they spread. Rats carry the fleas that cause bubonic plague, mosquitoes transmit malaria from one carrier to another, and flies can deliver typhoid and blood poisoning.
Contests were arranged among school children and other groups to see who could bring in the most dead bodies. Rats were trapped and flying bugs swatted with ideological fervour. There were no monetary payoffs for the contest winners but to be declared a “Hero of the Glorious Peoples' Revolution” was surely reward enough.
Again, the slaughter was phenomenal. Numbers that are frequently quoted are that 1.5 billion rats were bumped off, and that 100 million kilograms (220 million pounds) of flies and 11 million kilograms (24 million pounds) of mosquitoes were killed. One has to cast are skeptical eye over those numbers, so perhaps it's sufficient to say the death toll was humongous.
However, these vermin can breed themselves into vast numbers in a very short space of time. For example, theoretically a single pair of rats could generate 359 million descendants in just three years. Sparrows are not that fecund and this is where Mao's plan came horribly unglued.
Mother Nature Fights Back
It turns out those pesky little sparrows on Mao's hit list didn't just eat grain; they dined on bugs too.
The year after the great bird slaughter, farmers started to notice a big increase in crop infestations. Locusts and other pests were destroying crops now that their chief predator had disappeared.
When Chairman Mao heard that the sparrows were an integral part of the crop protection system he rehabilitated them and turned his ferocious death campaign on bed bugs. He even imported 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union. But, this came too late.
Insects were devouring far more grain than the sparrows ever had and crop yields dropped by 70 percent. The result was famine; between 1958 and 1961, an estimated 30 million Chinese people died of starvation; some say the death toll was as high as 45 million.
This is a classic example of how meddling with nature usually ends in tears. Knock one part of the interconnected ecosystem out of action and the consequences elsewhere can be disastrous.
When Sparrows Fall: China's Great Famine
- Echoes of Chairman Mao's campaign against the four pests could be heard in 2003/4. When SARS broke out in Guangdong, officials ordered “a Maoist-style 'patriotic extermination campaign' against civet cats, badgers, raccoon dogs, rats and cockroaches” (BBC). This despite the absence of evidence these critters were the cause of the SARS outbreak.
- Since 1980, there has been a collapse of the house sparrow population in Europe; there are now 247 million fewer of these birds, close relatives of the Eurasian tree sparrow, than there were 40 years ago. Culprits in the decline are changing agricultural methods, air pollution, and diseases such as avian malaria.
- “Paved with Good Intentions: Mao Tse-Tung’s 'Four Pests' Disaster.” Rebecca Kreston, Discover, February 26, 2014.
- “Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The Sparrow that Survived Mao's Purge.” Michael McCarthy, The Independent, September 3, 2010.
- “China: The Four Pests Campaign.” Marlon Mosley, mwmblog.com, August 26, 2019.
- “China Follows Mao with Mass Cull.” Tim Luard, BBC, January 6, 2004.
- “House Sparrow Population in Europe Drops by 247m.” Patrick Barkham, The Guardian, November 16, 2021.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor