Estimates of Great Leap Forward famine deaths vary wildly.

The exact number of deaths by famine is difficult to determine, and estimates range from 15 million to 55 million people. Wikipedia

Indian Marxist economist Utsa Patnaik claims that commonly accepted famine death rates were exaggerated using statistical manipulation here:

MROnline: Revisiting Alleged 30 Million Famine Deaths during China’s Great Leap

Below are some excerpts from her claims:

There are two routes through which very large ‘famine deaths’ have been claimed — firstly, population deficit and, secondly, imputing births and deaths which did not actually take place. Looking at China’s official population data from its 1953 and 1964 censuses, we see that if the rate of population increase up to 1958 had been maintained, the population should have been 27 million higher over the period of 1959-1961 than it actually was. This population deficit is also discussed by the demographers Pravin Visaria and Leela Visaria. The population deficit was widely equated with ‘famine deaths.’ But 18 million of the people alleged to have died in a famine were not born in the first place. The decline in the birth rate from 29 in 1958 to 18 in 1961 is being counted as famine deaths. The Chinese are a highly talented people, but they have not learnt the art of dying without being born.

As output declined from 1959, there was a rise in the officially measured death rate from 12 in 1958 to 14.6 in 1959, followed by a sharp rise in 1960 to 25.4 per thousand, falling the next year to 14.2 and further to 10 in 1962. While, clearly, 1960 was an abnormal year with about 8 million deaths in excess of the 1958 level, note that this peak official ‘famine’ death rate of 25.4 per thousand in China was little different from India’s 24.8 death rate in the same year which was considered quite normal and attracted no criticism. If we take the remarkably low death rate of 12 per thousand that China had achieved by 1958 as the benchmark, and calculate the deaths in excess of this over the period 1959 to 1961, it totals 11.5 million. This is the maximal estimate of possible ‘famine deaths.’ Even this order of excess deaths is puzzling given the egalitarian distribution in China, since its average grain output per head was considerably above India’s level even in the worst year, and India saw no generalised famine in the mid-1960s.

Thirty million or three crores is not a small figure. When one million people died in Britain’s colony, Ireland, in 1846-47, the world knew about it. When three million people died in the 1943-44 Bengal famine, the fact that a famine occurred was known. Yet 30 million people are supposed to have died in China without anyone knowing at that time that a famine took place. The reason no one knew about it is simple, for a massive famine did not take place at all.

How plausible are these claims? Is there any critical review of Patnaik's assertions?

The source is biased and heterodox so I'm interested in in-depth comments. Among her other arguments, I'm wondering if attributing unborn people due to lower birth rates to famine deaths is even a thing among statisticians/demographers at all? She cites a few early studies on the subject and criticizes their methodology, but surely there're other writings on the subject as well that address this?

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    – MCW
    May 25 at 1:14
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    > surely there're other writings on the subject as well that address this? - Yes, and they are cited extensively in the Wikipedia article. So what is the question that isn't answered there? The one about demographic methodology? This could be more clear if that's the focus.
    – Brian Z
    May 26 at 2:11
  • Well, yeah. Sorry for being not precise enough. I mean subjects that address her criticisms of the methodology (not necessarily personally her criticisms, just the line of argument she presents). Of course, I know that the estimates are different.
    – yuajo
    May 26 at 6:29