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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: