China Exterminated Sparrows Because They Were the “Animal of Capitalism,” and Then Millions of People Died

By: Ben Campbell | Last updated: Nov 07, 2023

During the 20th century, China decided to go to war with a particular species of bird. Yet, this unique decision would backfire years later and lead to the death of millions of people in the nation. 

While it may seem a little far-fetched, an unfortunate set of circumstances surrounding the killing of the nation’s sparrows did, in fact, lead to millions of Chinese citizens losing their lives. 

Where the Story Began

The story begins in 1958, with the communist government of Mao Zedong. He first rose to power in 1949 and became the first president of the People’s Republic of China. 


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Not long after he had taken power, he became known for his lapidary slogan, “Birds are the animals of capitalism.”


Zedong’s Plan for a New China

Mao Zedong planned to morph China from an agricultural country into an industrial power. But to achieve his ‘Great Leap Forward,’ he would first have to rid the nation of all enemies.


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So, Zedong went to war against flies, mosquitoes, rodents, and sparrows in what is now referred to as the ‘Campaign of the Four Plagues.’

The True Enemies of the Communist Regime

According to Zedong and his officials, flies, mosquitoes, and rodents needed to be eradicated to help improve the overall health and hygiene of the Chinese population. 


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However, while these were minor threats, the true enemy of the Communist regime, pointed out by the Chinese themselves, were the sparrows. The reason behind this idea was simple: they ate the grain from the crops. 

Zedong Dismisses the Advice of Experts

In an article on the subject, the Chinese journalist Dai Qing claims Zedong dismissed the advice of experts and went ahead with the slaughtering of all sparrows in the nation. 


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He said, “Mao Zedong did not know anything about animals and did not want to discuss or listen to experts; he only decided that the four pests had to be killed.”

How the Scientists Connived Zedong

The Chinese president of the time listened to scientists who claimed that each sparrow would eat around 4.5 kilograms of grain per year.

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Based on these estimations, they surmised that with every one million sparrows hunted, they would have food for around 60,000 Chinese citizens.


Hunting Season for the Sparrows

Mao Zedong would pass a law permitting the citizens of China to hunt as many sparrows as they pleased. 

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Human scarecrows dotted the nation, from teenagers to civil servants and members of the armed focus. Everyone had one thing on their mind: kill all the sparrows.


The Extermination of Over 100 Million Sparrows

It’s impossible to grasp how many sparrows were killed during this era. However, best estimates suggest the Chinese people hunted down hundreds of millions.

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In just a few short years, Zedong’s initiative was a success; the sparrow was close to extinction in China. 


A Scenario No One Saw Coming

Zedong scientists had failed to account for the severe consequences that would come with the extinction of something that was an integral part of the ecosystem. 

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Not before long, the severe consequences of Zedong’s actions were becoming apparent. Problems started to arise in agriculture that would threaten the crops and the lives of Chinese citizens.


Nothing Left to Eat the Pests

Zedong and his scientists forgot to consider that the sparrows played a significant role in pest control. With their demise, the locust population multiplied so much that they began devastating crops across the country. 

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But it wasn’t just the locusts the Chinese people needed to worry about; bedbugs also began to multiply at an accelerated rate. 


Mass Famine Across China

The locust infestation, as well as other pests, began devastating crops across the entire nation. The result was an enormous famine that would soon leave millions of citizens dead. 

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Official Chinese estimates claim that over 15 million people died from starvation in the aftermath. However, less official lines of inquiry have surmised that as many as 70 million people perished during this period.


The Enemy Returns to Save the Nation

China would be forced to import 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union in hopes of saving their nation. 

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Thus, the bird that had been labeled the enemy of the nation would soon become China’s only hope to escape a desperate situation. Unfortunately, it was too little too late for the millions of citizens that perished.