China: The Four Pests campaign

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Reading Time: 3 Minutes

China between 1958 and 1962, the Great Leap Forward took place. The Great Leap Forward was an economic and Social movement, led by the Communist Party of China. One of the movements first campaigns was the four pests campaign, also known as the great sparrow campaign.

The thought behind the campaign was for Chinese citizens to start living more cleanly. The following creatures were considered pests: rats, flies, mosquitos, and sparrows. If you are like most people, you are wondering, Sparrow? Seriously? I’ve never heard anyone calling up a sparrow exterminator, or Walmart selling sparrow repellant. The mosquitos were on the list because they help spread malaria, the rats help spread the plague, and flies help spread typhoid. Sparrows? Well, the belief at the time in China was Sparrows were freeloaders eating up tons of rice and grains from the fields. The sparrows were like the Government, getting their piece or cut from other hard labor. The communist party didn’t like that, so they were added to the hit list.

The campaign called for Chinese citizens to act together to rid China of these pests. The Government posted posters advocating for the need of fly swatters, drums, gongs, and guns as a means to get rid of the pests. People reacted by using all means necessary to kill these four creatures. Sparrows received most of the citizen’s attention. Citizens were encouraged to make noise with pots, pans, and drums. The loud sound scared the sparrows, and if the noise kept up, the Sparrow would fall to the ground to its death out of exhaustion. That wasn’t all that was done to the sparrows though, nests were torn apart, eggs were broken and fledglings killed. The Government encouraged these actions by giving out accolades in school, workgroups and government agencies, to the members with the highest number of kills. All in all, the public killed an estimated 1.5 billion rats, I billion sparrows, 220 million flies, and over 24 million mosquitos. Considering the objective of the campaign, it was a success!

In 1959, researchers at China’s academy of science performed autopsies on a few of the dead sparrows. They found that the majority of the Sparrow’s stomach contents consisted mainly of insects and not grains. You see, the Sparrow is an integral part of crop protection. Sparrows eat a lot of insects that in turn feast on crops and they eat some grains too as a small token for their help. One particular insect the Sparrow feasted on was the locust. The Sparrow is one of the few natural predators of locusts.

After the campaign had been underway for some time, the sparrow population was near extinction; however, the locust population grew by leaps in bounds. The locust now free from their predator were able to swarm freely all over China and eat the majority of agriculture, intended for human consumption. The locusts ate thousands of pounds of grain. Chairman Mao finally ended the sparrow campaign and added bug beds to the four pests lists. Unfortunately, the damage was done before this change took place

By 1958 crop production had declined 15% in China. In 1959, that rate jumped to over 70%, causing a great famine in China. When the famine ended, between 15 and 36 million people died of starvation. The Great Leap forward campaign ended in 1962, and with that so did the four pests campaign.

Mistakes Were Made:

Chairman Mao had good intentions with the four pests campaign; he just didn’t do enough homework or research on the matter. Though it seems bizarre to think of sparrows as pests, that’s the way they all thought in China in the 1950s.

Changes to an ecosystem rarely go well. We don’t know or understand why things are the way they are, but everything has a purpose. It reminds me when one tries to play god and make changes for the “good” of society. When this happens throughout history, the act is usually followed by unforeseen consequences, usually bad ones. Think of this story or the prohibition era in the 1920s as good examples.

Everyone usually has good intentions in these type of situations; they never think to foresee what can go wrong by their actions. There are some things one can not anticipate, however, and in cases like the four pests campaign its impossible to reverse course once you go down that path. Unfortunately millions of Chinese citizens lost their lives due too this blunder, one can only hope that future leaders look at this story as a cautionary tale.

Originally published at on August 26, 2019.

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