Between 1959 and 1961, some 30 million people died of starvation in China during the Great Leap Forward, a national policy led by Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong to simultaneously increase agricultural production and exports as well as industrialization. Huge amounts of the nation’s grain were sold to raise money and pay off debts, while local farmers were ordered to abandon private plots for less productive communal farming, or to abandon their harvests to take up steel and iron production.
Food grew so sparse in certain regions that for some, cannibalism was the only means of survival. The Great Chinese Famine is widely believed to be the worst famine in history. In his award-winning 2010 book Mao’s Great Famine, author Frank Dikötter of the University of Hong Kong argued that it actually spanned one to two years longer than the official count and killed 15 million more people, claiming 45 million lives in all from 1958 through 1962.