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China’s emotional congestion

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

For the Chinese, “losing face” is a misfortune. Why? A German psychotherapist knows the answer: everyone has a “true face.” But in a dictatorship, it is far “too dangerous” to show it. Beneath “the mask worn on display, simmers a pent-up emotional potential of existential angst, murderous rage, hatred, deep pain, and often bitter sadness.”

The quote was made by Hans-Joachim Maaz, who was chief physician at the psychotherapeutic clinic in Halle for many years. However, he was not referring to China. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he wrote a “psychogram of the GDR” that was published in 1990 under the title “Gefuehlsstau” (Emotional Congestion). The German bestseller was also translated into Chinese in 2013 under the title “情感堵塞” and caused a stir among psychologists, social scientists, and educationalists. Since party leader Xi Jinping has lifted himself into absolute power and is pursuing the re-ideologization of his country, such critical reflections on the behavior of people and their split personalities in authoritarian states do not fit with the new era of socialist China propagated by Xi and the realization of his dream of renewing the nation.

Cover of “Gefuehlsstau” (情感堵塞) by psychotherapist Hans-Joachim Maaz, published in 2013. Although it is a “psychogram of the GDR,” the Chinese are familiar with its authoritarian character thanks to its dictatorship. The book no longer fits into the new Xi Jinping landscape, and can now only be found in China as an antique and at five times its former price.

People’s lives in the GDR, Maaz says, were “essentially characterized by social facades, the inevitable result of repressive upbringing.” Psychotherapists saw through the mechanisms “with which people can perceive the new ‘identity’ as their ‘true’ nature – this is possible by splitting off their feelings.” Thus, “the imposed second face gradually became a habit and finally self-evident normality. But no human being can live well with dissimulation in the long run.”

Politics-cursing cab drivers are also CP members

Do such diagnoses also apply to the behavior of today’s Chinese, who are growing up in a globalized and permissive consumer society? In post-Mao reform China, everything seems grotesquely bifurcated and has its own terms for this situation. From the mix of planned, state, and market economies to the family, where one spouse works for a state agency or enterprise and the other for a private company (体制内体制外); for the peasants, who are only second-class immigrants in the cities without hukou citizen status, to “one country two systems” (一国两制), which Beijing just recently abolished in Hong Kong.

Foreign travelers experienced (still until shortly before the lockdown) seemingly different situations immediately after their arrival in the country. According to their accounts, the Chinese pragmatically and flexibly adapted to the respective situation. On the way into the city, they heard (if they understood the language) how nonchalantly and loudly their cab driver complained about China’s leadership. When I got to know a driver, who often cursed about his government, he turned out to be a party member. He would get up early in the morning to volunteer to solve quiz questions in a CP training app (学习强国) before heading off to work. The praise for his perfect party-loyal answers went into his evaluation. He did not understand what was contradictory about his behavior, “That’s what everyone does.”

Even the couple who allowed their daughter to watch provocative South Korean and Japanese music videos on pirated DVDs at home on weekends found nothing reprehensible about it. They were only rewarding their daughter, who not only got good grades at school but was allowed to wear the red scarf for young pioneers for exemplary socialist morals. The parents also watched illegal copies of foreign TV series at home. The next morning, during the organized break at work, they sang along vigorously in the colleagues’ choir: “Without a Communist Party, there is no new China.”

Newspeak and doublethink common

“China has become the country with the most serious cases of divided personalities” (中国是双重人格最严重的国家), warns essayist Wang Xiao (王霄). The books and writings of Hannah Arendt on authoritarianism and the “elements and origins of total domination” translated during the reform era have strongly influenced his verdict.

The consequences also find particularly fertile ground among the Chinese because they are reinforced by the influence of traditional Confucian education, which prepares the individual from an early age for submission and subordination. In schools, where today “harebrained nonsense” has to be crammed into the subjects of Chinese, history or social studies, the “newspeak” and “doublethink” described by George Orwell in 1984 is common, writes the well-known cultural critic and university lecturer Xu Ben (徐贲).

“Speaking one’s heart” is what the Beijing old master of Chinese satire, Feng Cheng, called his memory of the time of the Cultural Revolution and deformed personalities when even best friends kept silent. Only the steam over the tea forms into question marks. State propaganda (left) proclaims on the mask: “All-sided dictatorship – the situation is excellent.” Today, intellectuals are once again silent.

He now lives in the USA. He sees how China drifts into a “new form of totalitarianism”. It has evolved from the original totalitarianism (under Stalin and Hitler) to post-totalitarianism (like once in Eastern Europe, for example) into this third form (从极权主义、后极权主义到”新极权主义). It is a variant of post-totalitarianism and condemns its liberal traits as political “weakness”. But the new totalitarianism produces only “patchwork,” not terror-spreading, systematic repression, but partial, albeit massive, forms of repression. For example, to silence the media and the Internet or to violently end mass protests. But he no longer had the power of persuasion or the “capacity for ideological mobilization.”

Rituals as a form of politics

China expert Minxin Pei, professor of government management at the US Claremont McKenna College, sees the People’s Republic drifting into a bifurcated world. In a Financial Times podcast, he says, “People know that one side of politics is about ritual. And that ritual you have to perform. Whether you believe it or not is irrelevant.” He says it works as long as there is still “substance, reality, and pragmatism” on the other side of politics. The same official who “proudly displays his smartphone to you to show that he’s done his morning exercise in reading Xi Jinping Thought. Then he turns around and talks in very pragmatic terms about his daily challenges at work.” Minxin Pei “grew up in the Maoist era”. In those days, people actually genuinely believed in that kind of political rituals. But today, we have to make a great deal of deductions about whether Xi Jinping Thought is genuinely embraced by the party members, officials and by ordinary people.

Pei laments that the space for critical liberal ideas in universities has been “completely closed”. His fellow academics no longer speak out publicly. “The smart ones simply shut up.”

In the end, he says, patriotism must act as putty to bridge the internal divide, of which many are not even aware. The opposition author Huang Yukai, a member of the independent Chinese Pen, calls such a two-part personality “schizophrenia,” but not in the medical sense, but rather as a diagnosis of a personality disorder induced by the system.

In the reform decades after Mao’s death, China’s experiences with dictatorship were elaborated, and books from Hannah Arendt to George Orwell were translated. In 2011, another magazine appeared as a special themed issue under the title: Why Do Chinese Love to Tell Lies? Unthinkable nowadays.

There were also public debates in China after Mao’s death about how to distinguish between what is true and real, false and mendacious. Translations, for example, of more than two dozen works and books by Hannah Arendt contributed to this, as did the novel “1984” by George Orwell, or “Animal Farm”.

In 2009, for example, a debate was sparked about whether, and if so, when the Chinese can remember where they first learned how to lie. Many answered that it was in elementary school when the system began its political indoctrination. In 2011, The New Week magazine (新周刊) published a special issue, “Why Do Chinese Love to Tell Lies?”. The Critical author Wu Si (吴思) at the time headlined his piece, “When the rulers spread lies, we pretend to believe them.”

Today, emotional congestion is having an effect. Many believe the lies.


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