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The Tragedy of the Nomenklatura: Career Incentives and Political Radicalism during China's Great Leap Famine


A salient feature of China's Great Leap Famine is that political radicalism varied enormously across provinces. Using excessive grain procurement as a pertinent measure, we find that such variations were patterned systematically on the political career incentives of Communist Party officials rather than the conventionally assumed ideology or personal idiosyncrasies. Political rank alone can explain 16.83% of the excess death rate: the excess procurement ratio of provinces governed by alternate members of the Central Committee was about 3% higher than in provinces governed by full members, or there was an approximate 1.11‰ increase in the excess death rate. The stronger career incentives of alternate members can be explained by the distinctly greater privileges, status, and power conferred only on the rank of full members of the Central Committee and the “entry barriers” to the Politburo that full members faced.

Corresponding author
James Kai-sing Kung is Professor, Division of Social Science, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong (
Shuo Chen is a PhD candidate, Division of Social Science, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong (
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