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Clans and Calamity: How Social Capital Saved Lives during China’s Great Famine

May 2020
By  Jiarui Cao, Yiqing Xu, Chuanchuan Zhang
This paper examines the role of social capital in disaster relief during China’s Great Famine of 1958-1961. We use the number of genealogies—books recording family trees—as a proxy for family clans, one of the most important vehicles of social capital in rural China. Using a county-year panel from 1954 to 1966, we employ a double-difference identification strategy that exploits the timing of the famine and the cross-sectional differences in the pre-famine measures of social capital. We find that the rise in the mortality rate over time is significantly less in counties with a higher clan density. A nationally representative household survey corroborates this finding and shows that, while individuals born before the famine are more likely to report having experienced hunger than those born after the famine, this difference is significantly smaller in regions with a higher clan density. Investigation of potential mechanisms suggests that social capital’s impact on famine may have operated through enabling collective action against excessive government procurement and facilitating inter-household risk-sharing. These results indicate that social capital can reduce the damage of faulty government policies in times of crisis.