Mao’s sparrow-hunt, the leap & a lawmaker’s cranial void


By Stelios Orphanides

Since he distrusted intellectuals, he relied instead on his own ideas to complete the revolution he led to benefit his people. And, in order to assist China carry out the promised great leap forward, its leader designed ambitious plans not only to increase food output and feed the world’s most populous country but also to industrialise it.

All that was part of a masterplan which also provided for the eradication of pests and the increase of steel output so that his country could match the production of other great powers of the time. So, 50 years ago, Mao Zedong finally ordered a campaign against sparrows which, if successful, would increase food production and – above all – consumption. Sparrows, so argued the communist leader, ate crops, so by wiping them out output would increase.

He therefore had them declared as “creatures of capitalism” and ordered the country’s 600 million population to kill them by any means possible. By breaking their eggs, destroying their nests, shooting at them, beating drums and pans to not let the birds get any rest and so have them die of exhaustion, China’s population drove the country’s sparrow population to almost extinction and met its objective. But it did not achieve the goal.

It turned out that the dramatic reduction in the sparrow population resulted in an equally dramatic drop in food output. And this was among the reasons that led to the Great Chinese Famine in 1959 to 1961, which caused the death of up to 45 million Chinese. Only when scientists explained that sparrows ate crop eating insects in addition to the crops themselves would Mao agree to cancel the sparrow hunt carried out by the Asian country’s population with enthusiasm.

The Chinese people were however equally motivated to also help implement the plan to increase steel output by setting up furnaces in their backyard. But as it was the case with the sparrow hunt, this plan failed to produce the desired results. While overall steel output increased, it emerged that these smaller-scale backyard furnaces produced lower quality steel which was practically unusable.

On top, the operation of backyard furnaces had another undesired side effect. Their construction and operation deprived the population of valuable resources. In the absence of quality coal, farmers-turned-steelworkers had to fire them even with their own furniture or by chopping down forests. In addition, backyard furnaces used scrap metal, even tools and kitchen utensils instead of pig iron. Mao, who knew as much about metallurgy as he did biology or ornithology, had to cancel this programme too. But the damage was already done. The use of agricultural tools as raw material in steel production deprived farmers of valuable tools which in turn further limited their capacity to grow food, which exacerbated the famine.

On Monday, Angelos Votsis, a lawmaker of the Diko party and a pharmacist by trade, came up with an idea which, if successful, could help consumers, or so he thought. The latter currently have to pay more for petrol and electricity than a few months ago. If the government, he proposed, allowed a reduction of taxation on fuel then the retail price of petrol which climbed to over €1.30 per litre as a result of the recent rally of the oil price on the international market, would decline and this would benefit the consumer.

Now, if one puts aside objections related to economics, and assumes that by reducing taxation to encourage fuel consumption would not harm the economy – which is of course not true, and oil producing Venezuela, which subsidises fuel is the perfect example – there is still a minor technical detail Votsis, who heads parliament’s commerce committee, appears to ignore.

A detail he should be aware of given that he raised the same issue last year. Cyprus stands under an obligation to impose EU harmonised excise taxes on a number of products including fuel. Fuel is already taxed with €0.479 per litre, the minimum possible, which in other words means that no further reduction in taxation is allowed. Apparently, even though Votsis served until 2016 as deputy chairman of the finance committee – and he should therefore know better than the average citizen – he appears not to be aware of even that.

But even if the EU would allow this, Votsis should also know that the island is also obligated to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by almost one fourth of 2005 levels by 2030. To achieve this, Cyprus should therefore discourage fuel consumption which generates CO2, not encourage it.

Votsis should also know that Cyprus completely lacks a public transportation system which as a result, burdens consumers by compelling them to use fuel consuming private cars for almost every activity in their daily routine. If he really wanted to help consumers improve their lives he should promote policies that would allow them to save money by not having to use their car to get to work.

But as Votsis is a populist and as populism and ignorance go hand in hand, he affords himself as much ignorance as he can at the expense of the society. The Diko lawmaker has apparently the same degree of respect for intellectuals as Mao Zedong had. Fortunately, he is only one of the 56 lawmakers and has no executive powers. Unfortunately, most other members of parliament and the government are equally clueless in almost every area.

It is not a coincidence that the island is mismanaged in every respect. Politicians are doing the wrong things and on top, they do them as wrongly as they can. And in the absence of common sense in public life, Cyprus completes one great leap backwards after another.


About Author

Stelios Orphanides is a journalist at To contact Stelios Orphanides: [email protected]

  • Neroli

    Good article Stelios!