I have been reading The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy by Minqi Li. The author reads like a fan of Mao and is succeeding in convincing me I need to dig deeper in to the story of Mao's rise in China. Li is a world-systems-analyst type thinker who constantly returns to data and comparative charts of China's progress in those years. On page 33 he states:

Table 2.2 reports the levels and changes of life expectancy at birth in China and in and selected countries and country groups. Between 1960 and 1980, China's life expectancy at birth rose by 30.5 years. This was an improvement greater than the world average, every country group, and every selected country. The rate of improvement tripled the average rate of improvement for low-income countries. By 1980, China's life expectancy had risen to 67 years, fully 13 years ahead of India and better than the middle-income average (even though China had among the lowest per capita GDP in the world, which, it should be emphasized, did not result from the Maoist revolution but from China's long-term peripheralization in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century). The success of China's socialism in advancing its general population's health conditions is indisputable.

The table he refers to takes its data from the World Bank, World Development Indicators Online http://devdata.worldbank.org/

This seems like a reasonable source to me, but I find it hard to believe I have never heard about this in the previous discussions of China and Mao I've heard. Is this guy a hack? If not, how do I continue to study the Maoist period in a way that focuses on the grass roots changes being made in China's societal structure that led to these breakthroughs? How do I get a sense of the average Chinese farmer's sense of life spans prior to Mao? Was there a native theory or awareness among the mass of Chinese prior to Maoism which was seeing how much older people become in neighboring countries or the West? Did Mao offer life span extension as an explicit goal of his changes? To what extent did the revolution occur because people were aware that the way the free market was allocating resources was killing them and to what extent was Maoism a coaching of the people to this conclusion? What were particular changes in their society's structure that had immediate helpful results that people were hungry for before hand? How much of the change was agricultural vs. medical vs. industrial?

  • 9
    Do note that such a rise in "life expectancy at birth" mostly means that infant mortality levels decreased, not that people who would have survived to their first birthday anyway were actually living longer. Also, you have a lot more questions in that last paragraph than could be answered here.
    – Giter
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 16:31
  • Given the title, I'd take anything this author says with a large spoonful of salt. China's economy only began to prosper when it abandoned Maoism for (state) capitalism.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 22:20
  • 3
    In 1976 Mao Zedong exerted the greatest influence on the course of global poverty of any human in history - he died. The immediate and tremendous effect on Chinese life expectancy that you observe is a direct reflection of that. Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 16:41
  • 1
    Yes. as shocking as it may sound.... but when a government stops actively killing people, life expectancy rises.. Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 18:14

3 Answers 3


"1960 through 1980" is a very interesting choice of time periods. I suspect the claimed increase in life expectancy at birth during that period is true, but it's also misleading.

1960 was the worst part of the Great Chinese Famine, where somewhere between 15 million and 45 million people died; famines tend to be hardest on the very young.

1980, on the other hand, was in the middle of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms. Semi-privatization of agriculture resulted in greatly increased production, and increased economic activity meant there was plenty of money available for things like basic health care (and the communist ideology meant that health care was available to everyone).

If you plot the raw death rate per 1000 people since 1960, you'll see the rate plummet over the period 1960-1962. That's the recovery from the famine; if you were to use 1965 rather than 1960 as your starting point, the improvement would be far less dramatic.

(The World Bank gives an improvement of only +23 years at birth over the period 1960-1980, rather than +30.5, but that may just be a difference in calculation techniques.)


Actually, growth in life expectancy in China looks even better if you start from the end of the Chinese revolution (say, 1950). A nice paper on this with charts of provincial-level morality (infant and under-5) is An exploration of China's mortality decline under Mao: A provincial analysis, 1950–80, (K. Babiarz, et. al., Popul Stud (Camb). 2015 Mar; 69(1): 39–56.)..

There is an increase in mortality during the famine of the 1960s, but this is lower than the mortality rate in the early 1950s.

One nice tidbit from that article: China managed to almost completely eradicate smallpox over a period of just three years (!), 1957-1960.

  • And if you start from 1955, the growth looks less impressive than either 1950 or 1960. China saw about 50 years of wild swings in infant mortality before settling down, which makes it very easy to cherry-pick a time range that gives you the answer you want.
    – Mark
    Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 21:12

Did China's life expectancy at birth rise 30.5 years from 1960 to 1980? If so, what were the particular changes made to their society's structure?

There were two disastrous Chinese programs which accounted for millions of premature deaths in the 1960's and 70's.

The Great Leap Forward 1958 - 1962. cost 45 million Chinese their lives. A famine occurred as farmers were encouraged to destroy their plows and important farming equipment in a flawed attempt to manufacture steel. The effort resulted in mass famine.

The Cultural Revolution 1966 until 1976 at least 3 million people died violent deaths and post-Mao leaders acknowledged that 100 million people, one-ninth of the entire population, suffered in one way or another”.

Mao Zedong died in Sept 1976, and this lead to more enlighten and stable leadership.

Deng Xiaoping, ruled 13 September 1982 – 2 November 1987 his economic reforms put China's economy on a growth path. But his rule is outside the period identified in your question.


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