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China’s ‘Perfect Dictatorship’ and Its Impact — An Interview With Professor Stein Ringen

China Change, November 6, 2018 

Teng Biao interviewed Prof. Stein Ringen on August 2, 2018 and October 5 via Skype. Stein Ringen is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Oxford and Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London. Teng Biao is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, New York University and a Chinese human rights lawyer. – The Editors


Ringen_the perfect dictatorship

 Teng Biao (TB): I think your book, The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, is one of the best books on Chinese politics in recent years. Is this your first book on China? What inspired you to study China?

Stein Ringen (SR): First, I’m interested in governments and states and how they work. This is the biggest and most challenging one. So if you want to understand states you need to understand the Chinese state, and so there’s the challenge. The other reason is that I had already done a study of the South Korean state. And I thought that the developmental states’ experience of Korea might be a relevant background for looking into the Chinese story. I thought it might be rather similar. In fact, it turned out that the Chinese story is very, very different.

TB: Yes, and then you wrote the book The Perfect Dictatorship. Why did you choose this title?

SR: I found that it is a dictatorship that is, from its own point of view, functioning very well. It is a dictatorship that is in full control. So my idea with the title was not to praise the Chinese system but to give a warning that this is a dictatorship that is very hard, and very much in control.

TB: In your book you created some interesting concepts, like “controlocracy.” What do you want to suggest by creating this term?

SR: The idea was, on the one hand, to say that this is a regime that is dictatorial, but in a way that sometimes it doesn’t even look dictatorial. It is obsessed with being in control. It is not obsessed with dictating everyone in their daily lives. It’s not like under Mao that people have to dress in a certain way or like certain forms of entertainment. But, it is in control. So control is the commanding feature of this dictatorship and it is very good at keeping and staying in control. The party-state is everywhere. It sees everything and knows everything, and they are in their very big population in perfect control.

TB: Another thought-provoking term in your book is “sophisticated totalitarianism.” In a piece I wrote recently for ChinaFile, I cited your term and elaborated on it a bit. I wrote: “This totalitarianism is strict and refined without being brittle and dogmatic; it’s cruel and barbaric without being chaotic. China’s booming economy, social stability, and apparent popular support for Xi have fooled both the world and most Chinese citizens.”  What’s your view on the difference between this “sophisticated totalitarianism” and Stalin or Mao Zedong-style total control system? Is this system more adaptable, flexible and resilient, than traditional totalitarianism? Is the CCP able to learn from the collapse of other party-state dictatorships and maintain its own monopoly on power for quite a long time, say 40 or 50 years?

SR: It’s not acceptable. It is a very hard dictatorship and is therefore an unacceptable form of government. But they are very clever in making themselves look acceptable. I think both within China, but also in the outside world. As you know, people keep travelling to China and when they come back they are starry-eyed in admiration of the delivery of the system. So they are very much able to control their own narrative both at home and abroad. And, of course, they have learned very much from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in Beijing was studied very carefully. And they understood the weaknesses in the Soviet Union that they had to prevent at home. These are, for example, to never lose control of the narrative, to always consolidate the alliance between the Party and the military, to maintain surveillance and propaganda and censorship ruthlessly, and to never let go, and also to not allow factions in the Party system. This they learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union and they are determined that there shall not be a similar kind of collapse in the Chinese system.

TB: Former Singapore UN ambassador Kishore Mahbubani once said that every year tens of millions of Chinese people travel internationally and then they voluntarily go back to China. He used this as a strong example to praise the so-called “China Model.” What do you think are the reasons? Do you agree with that?

SR: Many Chinese are traveling. Mainly, I think, because they can afford it; they have enough money to be able to travel internationally. We know that very much in Europe, for example, that there are very many Chinese tourists who travel here. They go back. On the other hand, there are many people in China who leave the country either because they have to, you know something about that, or because they wish to send their children to education outside of China. They try to bring their own money out of China to invest it and secure it outside of China. So many of those who are able, are showing with their behavior that they do not have much confidence in the future of the Chinese regime. The idea that the Chinese regime is better, the Chinese model is better than a democratic model, for example, is a very powerful narrative from the regime’s side. But we need to keep priorities right here. It is not a system that is better just because it delivers development, because it does that at the cost of depriving all Chinese of freedom. We know about authoritarian, totalitarian regimes previously, and that is the main characteristic of this regime. It is to the benefit of some, but it deprives everyone of liberty and freedom.

TB: Relatedly, George Orwell’s 1984 was famously regarded as a perfect dictatorship, do you think China’s “controlocracy” is equal to 1984, or is it even an advanced version of 1984? And I also used the term “technical totalitarianism” to analyze the advanced version of totalitarianism in China, with such examples as networked “stability maintenance,” big data, street cameras, facial recognition, voiceprint recognition, artificial intelligence, DNA collection, strengthening of the secret police, the Great Firewall, etc. Are we exaggerating the ability of the dictators’ use of high-tech? Aren’t high-tech and new tools a double-edged sword that can be utilized by civil society or resisters as well? 

SR: Yes, China is very much like Orwell’s warning, including in the control of language, control of history, control of the narrative. But they have moved on because they now have technologies that Orwell could not even imagine at the time. And these technologies, these modern technologies, are being used for control in a very sophisticated way by the Chinese authorities. They are in control of the Internet. It was long thought to be obvious that no dictatorship can control the Internet. But the Chinese dictatorship is in control of it. They are actively using the Internet by engineering the stories that circulate. They are using other technologies, big data systems, facial recognition. All of this in order to control what is happening in their country. I mean this is now very advanced, particularly in Xinjiang, which is a police state of the kind that has never been seen previously. In the last few years, as you well know, the security budgets in that province have doubled year by year. And the control, explicit control there, by old-fashioned means –– police and military forces –– and modern means –– electronic surveillance, is still a kind that has never been seen previously. There has never been control of this kind anywhere in any country before, like the way we see now. We now see it unrolling in China.

TB: You know I was a human rights lawyer for 14 years in mainland China. Harshly speaking, during Hu Jintao’s era, we had some space to develop our human rights movement. And we felt that the Internet-related technology were more in favor of the civil society than the government, even though we knew both the human rights communities and the rulers made use of high tech. Now it seems that we should not be that optimistic.

SR: You know better than I do. The community of human rights lawyers has suffered very badly in China in the last several years. What was at one time, you say, a movement is now really crushed, and it has become very much more difficult for your brave colleagues to continue their work in China. Many have their businesses shut down. Many have been imprisoned, persecuted in other ways, and their ability to stay in touch with each other has been reduced very strongly. So it’s a very sad story what’s happened to that brave community. This is a story you know better than I do, but it is very hard to watch from the outside. There was a vibrant, brave community of lawyers, and they have really been taken down.

TB: Yes. The 709 crackdown on rights lawyers is the worst crackdown on lawyers since the legal system was reconstructed in 1978 after the Cultural Revolution. 

TB: Most people know that China is one of the most unfree countries, but forget China is also one of the most unequal countries. How does this inequality affect the CCP’s political legitimacy? Or is it a necessity of the one-party rule of the Communist Party?

SR: Well, in my book about China, I looked at both inequality, poverty and public services. And I looked at taxes. I found that the tax burden of the Chinese people is very, very high. What is returned to the people in the form of services is minimal. Inequality has been increasing very rapidly. So now China is one of the most unequal societies in the world. And I think this is part of the reason for the dictatorship, because these are realities that could not be maintained under a democratic system ––the combination of very heavy taxes and very inferior services. It just doesn’t always look like that to observers, but that is the way it is. So the system, the political economy, extracts enormous resources from households and returns to the household sector a system of rising inequality. That is explosive in any society and is part of the reason why this regime needs to maintain such draconian controls as they do.

TB: The ideology of Marxism-Communism-Maoism has gradually declined in China. The CCP, and most Chinese people believe in money and power. How does this shift influence the CCP’s rule? Is this the reason why Xi Jinping tried to resort to a return to ideology and a cult of personality? 

SR: Yes, among the innovations of Xi Jinping is the reintroduction of ideology, but now not Marxist ideology, but a strongly nationalistic ideology. His slogan of the “China Dream” and all that is a nationalistic narrative. So here we have a regime that is very strong, very dictatorial that is giving itself guidance by an ideology of nationalism and chauvinism. These are Xi Jinping’s innovations, the heart of his relentless movements of the regime into a heavier and heavier dictatorship.

TB: You mentioned nationalism. You know when the Chinese Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China, they strongly — and successfully — utilized nationalism. Theoretically, nationalism is in conflict with Marxist theory—i.e., communism and internationalism. So, from the beginning, paradoxically, the CCP employed a mix of Marxism and nationalism, and now maybe they feel they need more nationalism. Do you agree with that? 

SR: Yes I do. I think that part of the regime’s efforts to control the narrative is that they need an ideological superstructure. They need a story of purpose for the regime, and for the nation. And that they are now finding not in Marxist internationalism but in Chinese nationalism. And that story of nationalism has been notched up very strongly and very explicitly by Xi Jinping. This is again part of the control system. This is a regime that gives itself the praise that they have the support of the people, but at the same time, it never ever trusts in the support of the people. So they never relax controls even though they say that they are governing in such a way that they have the support of the people. They do not for one moment trust that that support is genuine. So they rely on controls.

TB::Some scholars noticed the similarity between the current Xi Jinping regime and Hitler’s Third Reich. The one-party rule and the total control of society. Ideology, propaganda, brainwashing, nationalism. What happened in Xinjiang is race discrimination, mass detention and cultural elimination, secret police and the cult of personality. So in your opinion, how possible is it that China’s political system goes toward fascism in the future? 

SR: Well it’s a system that has very many characteristics of fascism in it now. Important in that statement is the use of ideology. Deng Xiaoping and his followers presented themselves as non-ideological, just pragmatists, engineers of economic progress. That is all gone, and the regime is back to ideology. So it is a dictatorship that is very hard. I now call it a totalitarian system. It is a totalitarian system that is informed by ideology and that ideology is nationalistic. These are characteristics of fascist rule. Now, I think, we should always be aware that the Chinese system is very much of its own kind. It’s very different from anything else, but it is a system that has taken very clear likenesses with the characteristics of fascism under the rule of Xi Jinping.

This regime does not present itself to the world as a bully in the way, for example, Putin’s Russia does. It is a bullying state. Ask democracy activists, who routinely get beaten up. Ask human rights lawyers, who are now pretty much forbidden from practicing. Ask the people of Xinjiang, now a horrific police state, complete with a vast network of concentration camps. Ask international corporations that are forced to humiliate themselves and pay tribute if they want to do business, or governments in smaller countries if they want collaboration. Or ask neighboring countries around the South China Sea. But it is also a state with the clout and skill to disguise its bullying side and make itself look sophisticatedly elegant. 

TB: In a recent letter, you were publicly calling for China analysts to describe China as a totalitarian, not an authoritarian state. It aroused interesting debates. In your opinion, what are the academic and non-academic reasons behind the reluctance to categorize China as totalitarian? 

SR: I think there are now very few academic reasons for not categorizing the PRC as a totalitarian regime. I go by Hannah Arendt’s pioneering work and I think the PRC under Xi now fits the bill. The final straw has been the imposition of outright terror in Xinjiang.

In the debate following that open letter, there was much support for my position, but also, as you note, reluctance. Some of that reluctance is simple self-censorship. Many China scholars have invested their careers in work that requires being in China, having access to Chinese universities, archives and so on, and they cannot risk this being refused. That is understandable and I do not find it particularly upsetting. Another reason is what I have called “China fascination.” China, with its long history and rich culture, has an uncanny ability to fascinate. I think some academics in the field really wish for the best for China and the Chinese people and are for that reason reluctant to accept so negative a label as “totalitarian.” I think this kind of reluctance is misplaced, but also understandable. Related is a view that China is unique and that it is, therefore, too crude to apply a categorization that puts the Chinese regime in the same class as various other unpalatable regimes.

I should add that when I speak about totalitarianism in China it is of course the regime I am talking about and not the country, the culture or the people.

TB: You had analyzed the Chinese state as “trivial”. How “trivial”–– in your context, it means having no purpose beyond itself ––is the Chinese state? F.A. Hayek emphasized the “purposelessness” of a state. How should we understand the difference between purposelessness and triviality?

SR: I thought that one kind of dictatorship could be called “trivial” in the sense that it is nothing but control for the sake of control. There is no mission, no idea. I do not think that applies to the Chinese system, certainly not now. There is now a mission; there is an ideology, a vision of what this is for, and that vision is for China to regain its position as the Middle Kingdom in the world. This is a very ambitious idea that gives the dictatorship a purpose that makes it–– in my terminology––more than trivial. It makes it an ideological system, a system with a strong purpose of its own definition.

TB: So you mean Deng Xiaoping had no big ideology, and his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, had less ideology, and Xi Jinping has more ambition to “make China great again?” 

SR: I mean that may have been the ambition all along. Deng Xiaoping perhaps understood that it would take time before China had the economic and other powers to really accept the ambition of making itself the central power in the world. Now, they have the economic and other powers. And they are hard at work in making China the dominant power in the world.

TB: Some people argue that Xi Jinping’s personal dictatorship is a collective choice of the Communist Party, when it is facing comprehensive crises –– political, financial, and ideological crises. Do you agree? 

SR: There’s always one branch of thinking about the Chinese system that says that it is in crisis. As you know, people have been predicting that it would collapse for a long time, but that hasn’t happened. I think it’s a system with many tensions in it. And I think Xi Jinping made his first mistake from his own point of view, his first mistake, when he had the time limits on the presidency abolished earlier this year. That was a mistake, because it wasn’t necessary. It was a display of power that was demonstrative; it pulled aside the curtain for the rest of the world to see that this is a ruthless dictatorship where the top man can change the constitution by flicking his fingers, and it exposed the inner conflicts in the regime. Of course, there are disagreements and conflicts within that regime. And this step by Xi Jinping was demonstrative towards anyone who is not firmly within his camp, and he gives those others a motivation for organizing factional activity. We see some signs of that now, so I think this was a mistake on the part of Xi Jinping. He undermined, to some degree, his own position. And he let himself become the victim of the hubris of too much power.

So he committed a great mistake, in my opinion, and that mistake has followed through to some tensions within the system. Those tensions are now being stimulated by what is seen as not strong enough economic growth, and so on. So there are now visible signs of tension. That tension has been stimulated by Xi Jinping’s mistake. I think this was really the first mistake he did in his first five years. Otherwise, he has been consolidating power and cohesion within the system. And suddenly he took a step that undermined some of the “achievements” that he had made in his first years. However, I do not think this is a system on its own terms that is in any way in crisis. The control is very, very strong, and the strengthening of control that has happened under Xi Jinping is in anticipation of difficulties with economic growth, for example.

TB: Relatedly, will Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaigns hurt the dynamic or motivation of the CCP cadres? As to the totalitarian dynamic, like interest, ideology, nationalism, brainwashing, violence, or fear, will they be exhausted in China or elsewhere? 

SR: The anti-corruption campaign has had two intended results, I think. One is to make the regime look more attractive in the eyes of many Chinese people. There have been improvements in the corruption environment. So most Chinese are now less exposed to arbitrary corruption than they have been previously, or at least, they have seen improvements in that respect. The other result is that it has been a powerful weapon of power, control within the system. When everyone is corrupt, anyone who needs to be taken down can be taken down in the name of corruption. So under the auspices of the corruption campaign, Xi Jinping and the other leaders have been able to eliminate anyone within the system whom they’ve seen as not approving of them, or are seen as in anyway threatening. These “achievements,” dictatorial achievements, have been notable in the anti-corruption campaign. It has worked in both respects. It’s a remarkable system in the way it gives itself credit for liberating the people from the miseries that it, itself, has imposed on them.

TB: Some Chinese people, I think, are unhappy with the anti-corruption campaigns, even though they feel good once some corrupt government officials are arrested or sentenced, or even executed. But first, some privileged families are not affected. Most of the privileged families, those very high-level families, are not affected, like Deng Xiaoping or Li Peng’s families. And second, more and more Chinese people realize that this kind of corruption is embedded in the political system. It exists everywhere and is systematic. So what’s the next step of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign? Will the anti-corruption campaign influence Xi Jinping’s political agenda? 

SR: As I see it, I think the anti-corruption campaign has done its work. You know, we hear much less about it now than previously. I think there is less ordinary workday corruption. So it’s done its work, cleaning up a bit, in the daily lives of many people. Many potential opponents of the regime have been eliminated, so I think it’s really done its work. As I understand it, it goes on, but now it’s more of a routine. It’s not a big show anymore. I think it’s mainly had its time; it has run its course. And it does not have the prominence in the regime’s self-presentation as it did for a while. I’ve no doubt it will continue, but it is not the central instrument that it once was.

TB: Samuel Huntington distinguished performance legitimacy from procedural legitimacy; and A. John Simmons made an even clearer theoretical distinction between legitimacy and justification, arguing that recognition, through free elections, is the only source of modern legitimacy. In the context of post-Mao Chinese politics, is “performance legitimacy” enough for the regime’s political legitimacy? 

SR: Well, not in the opinion of the leaders themselves. They do not trust that they are seen as legitimate, so this is why they never relax controls. They praise themselves for the delivery to the people. They praise themselves for the gratitude that they are getting back from the people. But they never trust that they are seen genuinely to be legitimate, so they always fall back on control — never relaxing controls and always maintaining controls. No genuine trust that there is genuine legitimacy.

TB: Has the world had second thoughts about China after Xi Jinping removed the presidential term limit from the Constitution? Is the image of China changing in light of the facts of the deteriorating human rights situation, failure to abide by WTO rules and UN norms, even the CCP’s abduction of dissidents on foreign soil? You know the Gui Minhai case, a Chinese publisher with a Swedish passport who was kidnapped in Thailand and sent back to China and detained. So can we say that the presumption many people accepted, that is, that a market economy and globalization would lead China to become a democratic, open society, has been proven wrong? 

SR: Yes, I think so. It is now very difficult for anyone in the world to escape the recognition that in China there is a hard dictatorship. It’s a dictatorship that in many ways is good for business. Many people are fascinated with China and want to see the good in the system. But the development under Xi Jinping clarified to the rest of the world that this is a hard dictatorship. This is not a mild, benevolent autocracy; this is a hard dictatorship. I think the regime has brought upon itself a more difficult evaluation from the outside world.

TB: Have you seen many scholars, Beijing watchers, start to rethink the assumption that the market economy and globalization will guide China to become a liberal democracy? 

SR: I mean this was a strong theory for a while. But it is not a theory that anyone subscribes to anymore. In the long run, we do not know. In the immediate future, it’s clear that this is not a system that is on a path towards a more open society. It’s a system that, for the last five or six years under Xi Jinping, has been on a very clear road towards tighter dictatorial controls. In a way, it is moving politically in the opposite direction than was previously assumed because of its economic development. Economic progress, and political regression –– this was not thought to be possible previously. We are seeing in China that this is possible. It’s possible for the country to modernize economically and to regress politically towards an increasingly hard dictatorship. 

TB: For the past two decades or so, there has been a return to totalitarianism, the expansion of authoritarian influence, in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and, of course, China, and some countries in South America. What’s behind this phenomenon? 

SR: I think that there are, at least, some very clever dictators out there. Vladmir Putin in Russia is from his own point of view a clever operator. I think also there is a problem on the democratic side that democracies have been functioning quite poorly in many ways in recent years after the global crash. In 2007-2008, the democracies had not really managed to govern in a way that seemed to be beneficial to most people. And to be fair, I think we are seeing a revolt against what is perceived to be inadequate governance in the democratic countries, in particular, in the United States and in Britain. So that is weakening the democratic side. Why the autocratic side is strengthening, for someone like myself, that is a source of great concern and sadness in the world. And, I think, we on the democratic side really need to get our own house in order and to step up and to see that there have been real shortcomings in the way we are managing our affairs. That’s true in much of Europe and the European Union. It’s true in America. We really need to step up and do better than we have been doing.

TB: What’s your view about Francis Fukuyama’s claim (deepening a tradition of Hegel and Kojève) that liberal democracy is the end of history? 

SR: Well, the history of democracy is not a very encouraging one; it was invented 2500 years ago but we have had very little democracy since then, so it’s possible that democracy will not survive. And right now, there is, for my tastes, too much admiration of autocratic strength and not enough appreciation of democratic liberty. And what I’m, in modest ways, trying to do is to encourage the understanding of the importance for our way of life of democratic governance. I think again, we need to step up and to do better in the democratic world.

TB: When Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chinese government tried to punish Norway with “Salmon politics.” My personal experience is that the American Bar Association rescinded my book proposal for fear of angering the Chinese government, and some universities canceled my scheduled talks to avoid the risk of infuriating Beijing. In Hong Kong, China has torn up the “one country, two systems” commitment and the Sino-British Declaration. Hong Kong’s freedom is in danger and the UK has remained silent to a great extent. From your point of view as a Norwegian scholar living in the UK, is the policy of “buying silence” successful? What should the world do to fight the growing aggressiveness of the CCP?  

SR: Yes, the policy of buying silence is successful. This is sad to say, but it’s the case. You see that in my own country, as you mentioned, in Norway, they have normalized relations with China on the condition, in writing on paper, that the Norwegian government shall do nothing to disturb the new normal relations between the two countries–– a commitment to silence. And in Britain, the authorities here want Chinese investments for various purposes. They are silent. So severe human rights abuses that occur in China, they go on without much mention in the rest of the world. What we should do, I think, is to continue to be in contact and collaboration with Chinese people and Chinese authorities. For example, in the academic world where I operate, we should continue to be in contact. But, we, and our governments, should at the same time speak, in clear language, about the Chinese regime’s transgressions against human rights and the regime’s aggression in international politics. This happens to some degree but it does not happen as clearly and straightforwardly as I think it should, given the harshness of the Chinese dictatorship. And I think the democratic countries should collaborate and find some kind of common voice against the excesses in dictatorship and aggression from the Chinese side; we should speak with clear language.

TB:  China is playing a more and more active and aggressive role on the international stage, and shapes the international order. How far will China go on the way to influencing the international order? Or how possible is it for the West to give up its appeasement policy toward China, before it is too late? 

SR: I’m very pessimistic about all of this. I think that the Chinese regime is, by and large, able to control the narrative, and they are widely regarded to be a positive influence in the world as they present themselves. This is for many reasons; partly it is for reasons of self-censorship. Many of us have interests in China, economic interests, interests in being able to do research, for example, and we exercise self-censorship. So there is no common voice from the democratic side in response to Chinese totalitarianism. 

TB: To what extent does the CCP in foreign affairs, represent the interests of China and the Chinese people, and to what extent does it represent only the Party itself, every diplomatic choice is aiming to maintain its one-party rule and the interest of the privileged? 

SR: I always start from the basic premise that the PRC is a political project. Policies, domestic and foreign, are always designed to the perpetuation of the party-state. In foreign policy, that includes making this party-state ever more influential and dominant on the world stage. Is it in the interest of the Chinese people that the party-state gains in strength? I would say no, since it is not in the interest of the Chinese people that the dictatorship becomes stronger and more invincible. However, the nationalistic narrative of “national rejuvenation” no doubt has resonance in much of the population. This dictatorship, as many others, finds nationalism a strategically useful card. 

TB: So these are my questions, do you have other comments before we wrap up?

SR: I know that many China observers always see signs that things are cracking in the Chinese regime. The economics are not performing well enough. There is disagreement within the regime, and so on. Personally, I think that the right description is to see this as a regime that is in control and that we can expect very little improvement in that respect in the foreseeable future. So I’m deeply pessimistic about any movement on the Chinese side towards a more open society, and a more collaborative profile in international relations. I think, on the contrary, it’s increasing control domestically and increasing its quest for domination internationally.

TB: Thank you very much, Professor Ringen.



Also by Teng Biao on China Change:

Politics of the Death Penalty in China, January 16, 2014.

The Confessions of a Reactionary, August 27, 2013.



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The Thinking of the System vs. The Thinking of Individuals Within the System

Sun Liping, January 21, 2018


This essay was published when I first launched a public WeChat column. Now, I’ve made some revisions, and am publishing it again as follows. I’m doing this because people have a hard time comprehending a few recent events because they were incredibly unreasonable. It’s hard to understand why people, who are clearly smart and have gone through great travails, are screwing things up so badly. This essay attempts to explain this phenomenon from the perspective of the thinking of the system. –– Sun Liping, December 14, 2017.


About 20 years ago, I once said: Sometimes the system is more stupid than individuals in the system. That is to say, people within the system may all appear to be shrewd, but the system as a whole sometimes nevertheless behaves foolishly. Certain academic big shots were unhappy about my comment.

Below I’ve recounted a story I told in 2008 during a lecture at Tencent’s Yanshan Lecture Hall (腾讯燕山大讲堂), which says something about the truth of what I said.

Around the late 70s or early 80s when I was studying at Peking University, I came upon a short story in a provincial literary magazine. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten the title of the story and the name of the magazine; nor do I remember the author, and haven’t found any other mention of this very meaningful story. But I remember vividly the plot of the story, nearly 30 years later.

The story involved a soldier who was about to be demobilized. In order to be able to find a good job after he left the military, he wanted to secure Communist Party membership (at that time, the kind of work you could find and whether or not you were a Party member were directly related). So, acting on suggestions from friends, he started to give presents to his political instructor, spending a lot of money on the effort. But up until the day before he left the army, he still didn’t have his Party membership.

One evening, he charged into the instructor’s office and got into a big argument. Suddenly, he spotted a gun in the office, grabbed it, and pointed it at the instructor’s head. The company commander, who was nearby, heard the altercation. The moment he opened the door, he saw the soldier pointing the gun at the instructor’s head.

What to do? If the company commander forcibly seized the gun, it was likely to accidentally discharge and kill or injure the instructor. In such a state of emergency, he thought of the plot of a movie he’d seen not long before, involving the use of psychological deterrence. Accordingly, he walked towards the soldier while shouting “Go ahead and shoot!” “Shoot!” The soldier was stunned: How could the commander be yelling at me to shoot? Meanwhile, the commander slowly walked over and pushed the muzzle of the gun toward the floor, preventing a tragedy.

Now it was time for the incident to be handled. That the soldier would be punished was inevitable. The next to be punished was the commander. The reason for punishing the commander was because he was telling the soldier to shoot when the gun was pointed at the instructor. The commander defended himself: “It was to deter him psychologically.” But the system is incapable of acknowledging the law of psychological deterrence, because in the only political logic recognized by the system, there is no way to put the law of psychological deterrence in an appropriate position. What the system could acknowledge was a fact that could not be simpler –– that “when the muzzle of the gun was pointed at the instructor’s head, you said ‘shoot.’” As independent individuals, the people who were handling the case perhaps understood perfectly well the true intention of the commander, but the system in which these individuals operated had no way to do so.

What’s my point in telling this story again? I hope to point out the difference between an individual’s thinking and that of the system. Some years ago, a well-known British anthropologist, Mary Douglas, wrote a book titled How Institutions Think. The title implies that systems are able to think. Indeed, systems are able to think. Such a proposition gives us an even greater recognition and understanding of systems. But regretfully, in the end, scholars still often attribute the system’s thinking to human thinking; that is, they suppose that the thinking of the system thinking is carried out through individuals. In this way, individuals and the system are again rather simplistically confounded with one another.

What I want to emphasize is that the thinking of the system is not the same as the thinking of the people within the system. In fact, the thinking of the system is sometimes quite different from the thinking of the people in it. Every person in the system may understand a matter, but the system does not. For another example: during the Cultural Revolution, a man accidentally broke a statue of Chairman Mao. Everyone understood that it was an accident, but the system does not allow such an event to be an accident: If you broke a statue of Mao, you must be punished.

Why is the system’s thinking different from the that of individuals within the system? Because the thinking of individuals depends on the individual’s intelligence and knowledge, and institutional thinking depends on the logic and circumstances of the system. And so to the question raised in the title of this article.



Sun Liping (孙立平) teaches sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing. This is an unauthorized translation of his WeChat post 《孙立平:体制的思维与个人的思维是不一样的》 on December 14, 2017. (Archived here.)




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:



We’d Be Satisfied With Any Government!

By Chang Ping, published: October 1, 2015

“Why would the results of a poll conducted by a neutral, respected polling organization tally so closely with the propaganda of a totalitarian government?”


Can it be that 92.8% of Chinese poll respondents are truly satisfied with the Chinese central government, and that among these, 37.6% are “extremely satisfied”? For over a decade, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, in collaboration with Horizon Research (零点调查公司) in Beijing, has been conducting polls on Chinese citizens’ attitudes toward their government. In the most recent poll, respondents’ satisfaction with the central government was at an all-time high. The New York Times described it as a “reliable” public opinion poll.

Xi Jinping’s crackdown on “tigers” (corrupt officials and big-time economic criminals) has garnered the support of many Chinese citizens angered by corruption, but it is now abundantly clear that the vaunted crackdown is in fact a political power struggle in the guise of an anti-corruption crusade. At the same time, we have seen a continued Chinese economic slump, nightmarish losses for private investors who bought into government predictions about rising Chinese stock values, skies over Beijing that are made blue only for special occasions such as the recent troops review, a significant tightening of controls over online speech, large-scale incarceration of government critics, and mass arrests of human rights lawyers. One really has to wonder: from whence do these supposedly “high levels of satisfaction” derive?

Even more paradoxically, respondents’ levels of satisfaction with the Chinese central government have remained consistently high in every such poll taken over the last decade, as Anthony Saich, professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Director of the Ash Center, explained in an interview with the New York Times. In the two years since Xi Jinping assumed office, he has had a number of powerful rivals arrested: “security czar” Zhou Yongkang (周永康), whose former posts included chief of the China National Petroleum Corporation, secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and member of the 17th Politburo Standing Committee; Ling Jihua (令计划), ex-President Hu Jintao’s most trusted consigliere and the former head of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee; and generals Guo Boxiong (郭伯雄) and Xu Caihou (徐才厚), Vice-Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (from 2002 and 2004, respectively.) In addition, Xi Jinping has sacked over 70 vice-ministerial or higher-level officials in various branches of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese central government, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and placed over 40 deputy- or higher-level officers in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force (wujing) under disciplinary investigation. There are even rumors that Jiang Zemin, long at the center of collective CCP leadership, could find himself in peril. The current fight against corruption is undoubtedly a negation of the two previous administrations [of President Jiang Zemin (1993-2003) and President Hu Jintao (2003-2013)]. But how is it that Chinese poll respondents so consistently expressed a high level of satisfaction with those previous administrations? If respondents’ support for the current administration is simply a reaction to past corruption, how do we explain their sudden change of heart?

According to this year’s Ash Center-Horizon Research public opinion poll, respondents’ satisfaction with county, district, township, village and lower levels of government dropped to their lowest ebb since the poll began in 2003. Only 7.8% of respondents described themselves as “extremely satisfied” with their township-level government, while 47% said they were “relatively satisfied.” Professor Saich notes: “The hope remains for the central leaders that people continue to see the abuses as local aberrations and that the central government is still seen to be striving to work in their best interests. Local protests would thus be easier to contain.” This would also give Xi Jinping a broad base of public support for his anti-corruption campaign.

It is fair to say that this is exactly the kind of positive publicity the Chinese authorities want—poll results that can actually be broadcast on CCTV, China Central Television. I couldn’t help but wonder what difficulties the polling organizations in China and overseas would have faced had the results been different: would they have been able to publish the results so openly if their poll had shown that 92.8% of respondents were dissatisfied with the central government?

I do not mean to suggest that these polling organizations deliberately lied to curry favor with the Chinese government. I simply want to emphasize that, when analyzing and disseminating the results of such polls, we should recognize when the results are at odds with past and present realities, and endeavor to keep in mind the following question: why would the results of a poll conducted by a neutral, respected polling organization tally so closely with the propaganda of a totalitarian government?

Truthfulness in a Totalitarian Society

Some have noted that the Chinese phrase “Defend the emperor, regain supreme power, purge the courtiers, clean up the court” is a cultural tradition, while the phrase “Oppose corrupt officials, but not the Emperor” represents a kind of ancient wisdom. The main reason it is so difficult to do away with certain long-standing practices and abuses, I believe, is because they are being manipulated by real-world political power. Otherwise, how can we explain why Chinese society, supposedly so steeped in traditional culture, would allow its cultural relics, ancient texts, and long-standing tradition of respect for elders to be swept away en masse during the Chinese Cultural Revolution?

Let us imagine for a moment the same sort of public opinion poll being conducted in Cultural Revolution-era China, or in present-day North Korea: what would the results of such a survey be, and what conclusions could we draw from those results? I believe that respondents would report an even higher level of satisfaction with their central governments than in this recent poll. Although, as Professor Saich points out: “It [the Communist Party of China] has striven to render history in such a way that the party is the natural inheritor of Chinese tradition — a wild cry from the days of the Cultural Revolution, when the party was determined to undermine tradition and portrayed itself as representing a radical break with the past.”

What do we really mean when we talk about the truthfulness of a public opinion poll conducted in a totalitarian society? Although superficially, many areas of life in China seem quite open, it is one of only a handful of countries in the world where Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are blocked; where all media is controlled by a powerful party propaganda department; where school textbooks are subject to stringent political censorship and filled with falsifications of history, a whitewashed version of the present, and exhortations to love the nation and the party. It is a country where Tibetans who receive a photo of the Dalai Lama via a Tencent messenger app are sentenced to prison; where Han Chinese who post Sina micro-blog messages in solidarity with Hong Kong “Umbrella Revolution” protesters are arrested for “picking quarrels and causing trouble”; where public intellectuals such as Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木∙土赫提), Gao Yu (高瑜) and many others are given harsh prison sentences—not for organizing any sort of “subversive” activities, but simply for voicing criticism.

This deliberately engineered system of news blockades, fear of information and educational brainwashing is not, as many imagine, some sort of absurd joke; rather, it is an extremely effective system of control. How can we expect ordinary people raised on a diet of such limited news to disbelieve pronouncements such as: “American imperialism still seeks to subjugate China” or “The Japanese are eyeing China greedily” or “Xi Jinping, with incorruptible integrity, is leading the Chinese people to a grand renaissance”? Naturally, many Chinese people remain dissatisfied with their government, but to them, is this not a simple problem of local government officials not properly following orders from above?

To appeal to members of the middle class who are striving for a better life and believe that they have the capacity for critical thinking, the Chinese propaganda machine has reinvented or co-opted certain theories – “autocracy is more conducive to economic development” and “Chinese society requires a unique model of governance” – that sound both fresher and more profound than century-old slogans about “fighting for freedom” or “building democracy.”

A Fear That Cuts to the Bone

Although they may be subject to brainwashing, the Chinese people are certainly no fools, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the relationship between the Chinese central and local governments. But fear of information causes most people to simply choose not to think, because thinking leads to understanding, and understanding only leads to trouble. Václav Havel once offered an analysis of why a greengrocer living in totalitarian Czechoslovakia would post a sign in his shop window reading: “Workers of the world, unite!” The greengrocer, of course, did not really care whether the workers of the world were willing or able or even ought to unite. Therefore, to the greengrocer, the slogan was nothing more than a lie. Primarily, it was a lie that allowed him to feel safe. Secondly, the greengrocer was long accustomed to not caring what was “truth.”

Polling organizations will, of course, endeavor to protect the anonymity of poll respondents through the use of anonymous questionnaires and other means, but in a world where even the wealthiest and most influential global Internet corporations have capitulated to China’s “unique model of governance,” no one truly believes that the Chinese government will respect that anonymity or abide by the rules of the game. Writing something critical of China’s highest-ranking leaders – actually writing it down, in black and white – is a frightening thing for most Chinese people, a fear that cuts to the bone. This fear results in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome: “Why yes, I truly believe that my captors are bold and competent – not to mention handsome – and that they always have my best interests at heart!”

In similar opinion polls, citizens of western democratic nations typically reported much lower levels of satisfaction with their governments than did citizens of China, Singapore, Malaysia, and other totalitarian or quasi-totalitarian nations. In even more totalitarian North Korea, it is simply not possible to conduct such a poll. That fact in itself might offer some explanation for the satisfaction gap. But recent polls in Germany and other democratic nations show that this gap is beginning to close, which also raises some puzzling questions. Some might ask: are German citizens’ high levels of satisfaction with their government the result of brainwashing? Or is it that German poll responses reflect an environment that allows freedom of speech and individual expression, while Chinese poll responses reflect an environment characterized by news blocking, fear of information, and educational brainwashing? To which I can only answer: yes, that is truly the case.


长平_DWChang Ping (长平) is a veteran journalist and news commentator. He currently lives in Germany.


Also by Chang Ping:

How Brainwashing Works in China

The Triumph of Propaganda

Chinese Communist Party as the Mafia Boss


中文原文《长平观察:什么政府咱都满意!》, translated by China Change



The one thing you can be angry about

On Saturday Yaxue shared the story of “Subverter” Chen Pingfu. Essentially, he was deeply in debt after paying for a surgery, and turned to performing in public to try and pay off the money he owed his family members. For this he was threatened and eventually beaten by “public servants,” but he continued on. When he complained about this treatment online, he was further harassed by police, and was forced out of the only job he’d been able to find in years. Chen was a man desperately clinging to the last shred of dignity he had and local officials were determined to take that away from him.

Apparently in China, when the gov’t takes away your job and threaten you by saying, “I’ll send you to your death if you dare be a nuisance! Who do you think you are? Making you die is nothing for us! Go with us if you dare, and see how we will tidy you up!” you are supposed to swallow the bitter pill in absolute silence. For if you are angry, and express that in any public forum, you can be sentenced for “subverting state power.”

But we saw this weekend, that there is still one thing you can be angry about – Japan.

There were massive protests against Japan’s gov’t buying islands (from a Japanese family) which China claims (for excellent coverage see Eric’s coverage at Sinostand). Friends in Nanjing reported seeing smaller crowds gathered and one emailed me to comment on what happened during the Rape of Nanjing, “I still believe only a twisted and distorted nation could have done such horrific things and have enjoyed. It runs in the blood.”

From what Eric at Sinostand saw first hand, he had little doubt that these were gov’t sanctioned, if not gov’t supported protests, as the crowd hoisted Mao posters, and chanted for the long life of the Communist Party (in Xiamen they clearly were). People’s Daily has also hosted a series of other inflammatory news about Japan, which makes it seem as though the gov’t is not done stoking the fire. Global Times condemned the violent protests, but supported the protests over all (this is perhaps the most explicit piece from GT that shows their allegiance to the Party). This fits neatly with the Party’s beloved narrative that they are the only force that can protect China from being carved up by foreign imperialists (of which Japan is the worst).

Perhaps Chinese people really are this upset with Japan (over a move that has changed nothing as far as the issue of the Diaoyu islands is concerned). China does not accept Japanese control of the islands and so Japan’s recent actions should be as upsetting to Chinese students as China buying Hawaii from some guy in Gansu would be to an American. Furthermore, supporters of the Party like to remind us that the Chinese people are of low character, and would be very warlike without the firm control of the gov’t. Or perhaps it’s just that this is the only issue that one can actually take to the streets over without fear of being beaten by police, forced out of your job, or disappearing into the back of a Public Security Bureau van.

A friend in Chengdu told me that one of his greatest regrets in college was participating in the anti-American protests sparked by the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (these were also massive). He told me more than once, that after the U.S. apologized, the protests were halted, and the students were sent back to their universities lest they begin to protest anything else. He feels now as though he was nothing more than a pawn in the gov’t’s game, but at the time it had been a liberating feeling to go and scream and wave banners.

For now the students seem content with venting their frustration with the Japanese gov’t, but as China’s economy slows down and graduates can’t find jobs, it’s only a matter of time before they realize who they are really angry with.

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty and how it shapes corruption in China

I recently finished Dan Ariely’s book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, and realized that I’ve been thinking about corruption in the wrong way. While I’m not about to argue that there are “acceptable levels” of it, in the way Global Times tried, I do think we are overlooking a few key points.

For one, as Ariely argues, cases of embezzlement and fraud are not made up largely of Madoff’s (or Liu Zhijun’s), but of small daily acts by very ordinary people. He shows through his research that for the most part everyone is willing to cheat a little, and that massive cheats are actually far more rare than they should be (if one assumes that a person would cheat as much as is possible without repercussions), and that we should be much more concerned about the tens of millions of officials that go unnoticed.

The way Ariely and his fellow researchers tested their theories was with a basic math quiz, which allowed participants to lie about their score. They were then paid according to the score they reported to gauge how great of an effect variables had on people’s willingness to cheat. Surprisingly, people were unwilling to claim that they had solved all the questions correctly, even though there was plenty of opportunity to do so.

Ultimately, Ariely reasons, cheating is something that needs to be rationalized by the individual so that they can continue to see themselves as a decent person. The massive scams typically involve people who are very good at rationalizing what they are doing. This may explain some officials’ rather unbelievable claims about their “legal income” that seems completely beyond what they are earning on paper. Corrupt officials have likely convinced themselves that they aren’t doing anything wrong. Ariely’s research seems to suggest that something as simple as a pledge at the start of a work day or document could curb some abuse, as it would remind the individuals that these small acts are unacceptable.

There were also several factors that caused an increase in cheating that seemed to correlate to China’s officials. One is that removing physical cash from the equation greatly increased people’s dishonesty. If the award is something like a banquet, a wedding gift for a child, or perhaps a nice box of tea it would be easier to accept without guilt than cash. This means that the periodic gov’t crackdowns on gift cards may actually be more useful than they might have seemed at the outset. Another factor is something as simple as wearing knockoffs, which Dan argues results in the individual viewing themselves as more dishonest, causes people to cheat more to fit this new self-image. I would imagine there would be a similar effect on individuals who wear watches that were “gifted” in a dishonest fashion.

The biggest influence on dishonesty though is a demonstration of someone else cheating without punishment, which most officials likely get a glimpse of in their first gov’t position. I say this based on what I have seen within the schools that I’ve worked in, and the public hospital where administrators wined and dined without rebuke.

However, Ariely did discover that virtually every country’s culture is similarly corrupt, even though people often feel that their culture is especially corrupt (China was included in these tests, and the Chinese researcher was surprised to find there was no difference).  He did believe though that certain professions foster a culture that are more corrupt than others, with gov’t officials being among some of the top offenders (regardless of country).

So then, what lessons can we draw from this book about China? For one, the absolute most effective way of curbing cheating was to be supervised by a a third-party who had zero contact with the individual prior to or during the experiment. However, when the third-party was given time to get familiar with the individual, normal levels of cheating returned, and even slightly increased. This would seem to imply that China’s current system of corruption monitoring is faulty by design. Monitors should not be Party members, they should be frequently reassigned to limit fraternization, and should be closely monitored themselves (perhaps by an unrestrained media, or the citizenry). It would also abandon the idea that harshly punishing a few individuals would be enough to send a message to the rest.

We should also bear in mind that the daily, seemingly minor abuses, are likely more costly than the scandals that are too large to cover up. In a country with tens of millions of gov’t employees, if each employee enjoyed 100rmb in banquets per year (which is an insanely conservative figure), the cost to the citizens would be over a billion yuan (more than Liu Zhijun is said to have embezzled). To reach the level of monitoring that would be required to effectively crackdown on this kind of corruption, the gov’t would have to open their books to the public, which they are loathe to do.