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World War II: China's losses in a grim perspective - Professor Mark Harrison

Professor Mark Harrisonby Professor Mark Harrison, Department of Economics

Today (2 September) is the seventieth anniversary of Japan's surrender in 1945, marking the end of World War II. It seems timely to give some thought to the impact of Japan's war on China. Where does World War II rank in the disasters that befell China in the twentieth century?

Japan attacked China twice, the first time in 1931 by occupying Manchuria (the modern provinces of Heilongjian, Jilin, and Liaoning), the second time in 1937 by launching all-out war to conquer China and turn the whole country into a Japanese colony. For this reason, 1937 is usually taken as the outbreak of World War II in Asia.

In 1946 China's Nationalists estimated China's war deaths from 1937 to 1945 at 12.8 million (the figure is given by Sally Paine, The Wars for Asia, Cambridge University Press 2012, p. 214). Since China's total population was around 500 million at that time, the loss was enough to slow the population's natural increase, although not to reverse it.

For China, however, World War II was nested in another war, the Civil War of the Nationalists against the Communists. This war began in 1927 and continued until the Communist victory in 1949. The intensity of the Civil War was highly variable. During much of World War II, for example, the Nationalists were fighting the Japanese while the Communists sat it out, protected by secret agreements between the Soviet and Japanese governments. Then, after Japan's defeat, the Civil War resumed. There are no firm figures for China's total of war deaths over the 22 years from 1927 to 1949, that is, in the Civil War, the loss of Manchuria, and World War II, but 20 million is a not unreasonable number.

Once World War II was over, most economies recovered quickly. That's roughly what you'd expect when war demands are relaxed, peacetime social norms and legal guarantees are restored, and trade is allowed to recover. China's postwar recovery could not begin until 1949. In the 1950s China's economic recovery was rapid at first.

In 1958, however, China's Communist Party led by Mao Zedong accelerated national economic mobilization into a vast "Great Leap Forward," which forced the farmers into people's communes and set out to industrialize the country overnight. The outcome was a famine that, according to Yang Jisheng's Tombstone (Allen Lane 2012: chapter 11), killed around 36 million people in three years. Losing 12 million people a year for three years was more than enough to offset the population's natural increase, causing the population to decline absolutely.

So there it is. World War II cost China around 12.8 million lives over eight years -- between one fifth and one quarter of all premature deaths in the war worldwide. This was a shocking outcome and a terrible tragedy. But compared with the Great Leap Forward, which took 36 million lives in 3 years, it is not even close.

In every year between 1959 and 1961 China lost as many people as in all the years of World War II. The famine caused by its own government in peacetime was worse than the war against Japan.

Originally posted on Mark Harrison's blog.

Notes to Editors:

Issued by Lee Page, Communications Manager at The University of Warwick. Tel: +44 (0)2476 574 255. Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221. Email: l.page@warwick.ac.uk.

Contact:

Lee Page

Communications Manager

Tel: +44 (0)2476 574 255

Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221

Email: l.page@warwick.ac.uk