Expect Sanity in a Mad House

Yaxue Cao, June 20, 2016


Zhonghua 2B, for copying out CCP Charter only. Cartoon by @blogtd

“Zhonghua 2B pencil, for copying out CCP Charter only.” “2B” means a stupid person. Cartoon by @blogtd.


On Friday night I posted an essay that recorded a day’s events in China. Such days have become rather typical. A reference I made to a news item from six years ago caught the attention of some readers: “The Ministry of Public Security: Mental Hospitals May Not Treat Non-mentally Ill Patients Without Permission from Police.” On the Voice of America show, the host asked: Instead of issuing such directives to check abuses, why didn’t the Chinese government just ban police-run “mental hospitals?” I said: “The Chinese government wants the police to have such tools.”

On the show, I wasn’t quick-thinking enough to point out the obvious: the Chinese government gives police extralegal power to put people in mental hospitals, and tells them not to abuse it!

That’s like expecting sanity in a mad house. But in one area after another, isn’t that how China is run?

Let me pull out my “Four Buts” theory again that I inaugurated a year ago (meant to correspond to Xi Jinping’s “Four Comprehensives”):

  •         China wants to deepen reform, but it also wants to tighten control over society and its citizens;
  •         China wants to govern the country according to the law, but it also insists on the Party’s supreme leadership;
  •         China wants to encourage innovation, but it rejects real competition;
  •         China wants to have world-class universities, but it also wants to extinguish free thinking.

The list can go on and on. Add your own “buts.”

A while ago, I took note of a series of Weibo posts by Prof. Sun Liping (孙立平), a sociologist at Tsinghua University. He wrote in one post: “We often witness such situations: some actions by the government are utterly stupid, while the officials in the government are all very smart, or they would not have climbed to those positions. But why are they saying and doing stupid things every day? Because the system they are in has its own logic and way of thinking.”

He wrote in another post: “The key is to see what spaces the system leaves to people, what it rewards, and what it punishes. If the system constantly punishes wisdom and rewards stupidity, then the gap between the two will grow bigger and bigger. In order to protect themselves, or get promoted, people in the system move towards stupidity. That means they will no longer act for the good of the system, which will rapidly slide further into stupidity.”

“From this, you can understand how the system will reach the inevitable point where it competes to outdo itself for stupidity.”*

Living in China and having a job to keep, Prof. Sun couldn’t say everything out loud. But wasn’t the Great Leap Forward such a time when people were outdoing each other for being insane? The Cultural Revolution?

Are we not witnessing another period of insanity outdoing itself to be more insane?

To illustrate his point, Prof. Sun Liping recalled a short story he read years ago:  

Sun Liping 讲的故事

Click to enlarge.

I will share one other thing. I was admitted to college in 1977, and we started classes at the beginning of 1978. I read a lot of novels and stories at the time. A short story by a little-known author in a little-known magazine left a deep impression on me.

It was set in the early 1980s. A soldier was about to be discharged from the army. To be assigned to a good civilian job, one had to have Communist Party membership. He said, I won’t be able to get it because I haven’t distinguished myself. Someone advised him: give presents — cigarettes and liquor — to the political director. The soldier did just that, at regular intervals. The political director accepted them all, but didn’t give the soldier Party membership. The soldier became upset, confronting the political director: I have given you so many gifts, why haven’t you let me join the Party? In a heated argument, the soldier grabbed a rifle nearby and threatened to shoot the political director.

The captain of the company came over and saw that the soldier had his gun pointed at the political director with his finger on the trigger. The captain thought: If I try to grab the rifle from him, it may misfire. He remembered a scene from a movie where psychological deterrence was used. He pointed his finger at the soldier and said, “Go ahead, shoot!”

The soldier, still pointing at the political director, was confused. “What does the captain mean?”

The captain kept at it. “Shoot. Go ahead shoot.” As he spoke, he moved closer and closer to the soldier. Dumbfounded, the soldier put down the rifle. A possible tragedy was averted.  

The soldier was disciplined later. So was the captain. “Why punish me?” the captain demanded. “I was trying to mentally overpower him. I learned this from a movie.”

He knew that he’d confuse the soldier when he kept saying “shoot,” but the system didn’t understand it, because it allowed no room for such mental agility. To the captain, the system said: When the soldier pointed a gun at the political director, you told him to shoot, so you must be disciplined.

This story reminds me of an anthropologist [Mary Douglas] and her book How Institutions Think. The title itself suggests that institutions are not dead; instead, they are like people—they can think. But the thinking of institutions differs from the thinking of individuals working in the institutions. It’s possible that a situation can be perfectly understood by every individual in the system, but not by the system itself. Say, someone broke a Mao Zedong statue during the Cultural Revolution. Everyone understood that it was an accident, but the rigid system didn’t allow an accident, and must punish anyone who broke a Mao statue.

What I want to emphasize is this: how a system, not an individual in the system, sees things is what matters most.

With help from Prof. Sun, I hope I have driven home my point.


Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao 


* The three Weibo posts I cited have been censored. But if you Google, you can still find them in search results cited by others:



One response to “Expect Sanity in a Mad House”

  1. Cohen, Jerome A says:

    Another demonstration of “sanity” in a mad house was thrillingly recorded in an overlooked book from an earlier era: ESCAPE FROM RED CHINA, by Robert Loh and Humphrey Evans. It is the authentic account of how Shanghai businessmen competed with each other in the mid-1950s to rapidly give away most of their businesses to the state in an effort to retain something and survive politically and personally.

    Jerome A. Cohen | Of Counsel (Retired Partner)
    Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP
    1285 Avenue of the Americas | New York, NY 10019-6064
    (212) 373-3354 (Direct Phone) | (212) 492-0354 (Direct Fax)
    jacohen@paulweiss.com | http://www.paulweiss.com

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