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The case of prisoner Zhu

January 27, 2001

A textbook example of “political lunacy”



The following case study appeared in a 1994 textbook on criminal psychiatric work, Consultative Questions and Answers for Forensic-Psychiatric Medical Evaluations (Sifa Jingshen Yixue Jianding Zixun Jieda) edited by Long Qingchun, a leading official at the Beijing Ankang facility for the criminally insane:

A retired worker threw himself wholeheartedly into the study of political economy, tirelessly and laboriously writing “A Manifesto of a Scientific Communist.” Why was this a sign of mental illness?

Subject of [forensic-psychiatric] evaluation: Zhu, male, 57 years old, married. Ethnically Han, lower middle school educational level, worker in a coalmine. No unusual aspects in his development since childhood. Upper-primary school [sic] educational level, entered the army in 1956, joined the Party in 1961, and enthusiastically studied the works of Chairman Mao. Was demobilized in 1963 and began work at the coalmine. During the “Cultural Revolution,” served as vice-chairman of the mine’s Revolutionary Committee and was quite an activist. His achievements in “grasping revolution and promoting production” were, moreover, publicized in the People’s Daily, and because of this Zhu regarded the Cultural Revolution as the sole path to the realization of Communism.

In 1979 he began to get ideas about writing books on political theory, and after he retired in 1986 he often used to seek out members of the leadership and expound his thoughts and ideas to them. In his view, [the policy of] taking economic construction as the focus [of national work] was entirely mistaken, and he completely negated the principles and policies laid down [by Deng Xiaoping in December 1978] at the Third Plenum of the Party’s 11th Central Committee. He maintained that the international communist movement had already entered a third high tide, that China had produced its leader, and that this leader was none other than himself. Furthermore, he wrote a 100,000-character-long document entitled “A Manifesto of a Scientific Communist” and mailed it out to all the leading organs at central, provincial and municipal levels. Zhu had discussed all these views with the leadership of his work unit. He was normally a fairly quiet man, and he never used to discuss politics with ordinary members of the masses.

Most leaders of Zhu’s work unit felt that while his political viewpoints were wrong, they were not reactionary in content; moreover, he had relayed them all to the leadership and the organization, he had not disseminated them among the masses, and when mailing them out he had signed his real name to them. Also, Zhu had spent several thousand yuan of his own money to buy a printing machine, which his wife used to print out his various writings, and so his behavior had seemed orderly and logical and he didn’t appear to be mentally ill.

According to the masses, Zhu’s everyday speech was quite logical; he behaved in a respectable manner, was always polite in his dealings with people, and had an orderly and regular lifestyle. In their view he wasn’t mentally ill, just highly eccentric, and so they regarded him as being a political dissident.

In March 1987, Zhu was expertly evaluated and found to be suffering from paranoid psychosis, on the following main grounds:

The content of Zhu’s “theories” was conceptually chaotic: for example, he maintained that “during the period of scientific socialism, it is the State that engenders [social] classes, the superstructure that determines the economic base and the mode of rule that determines the mode of production,” etc. He maintained that all the principles and policies laid down since the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee were wrong. He was the leader who would guide the international communist movement during its third high tide. All this was a form of “political delusion,” a pathological mental disorder, and Zhu’s behavior was thus obstinate, impervious to reason and insoluble through criticism or discussion.

Under the influence of his “political delusions,” Zhu’s pathological willpower grew ever stronger. Upon his retirement, he declared that he would “keep on writing until his very last breath.” He saved more than 4,000 yuan to buy a printing machine. Even after these materials had been sent back, he continued writing and mailing out his articles just as before, thereby manifesting utter political lunacy.

Zhu’s views and utterances were incompatible with his status, position, qualifications and learning; the great disparities here clearly demonstrated his divorcement from reality.

Paranoid psychosis differs from schizophrenia in that, in the former, mental activity remains well balanced, the delusions are relatively systematic and not entirely absurd in content, and the integrity of the personality remains relatively intact. Aside from his “political delusions,” therefore, Zhu’s overall mental activity remained normal, he was able to lead a quite normal life, and even his own family had difficulty believing that he was mentally ill.






Crucially, this account contains no indication that Zhu had engaged, by international standards, in anything of a remotely criminal nature. From the case details provided, it seems clear that he was simply a committed leftwing thinker, of the kind to be found everywhere in China during the Cultural Revolution decade, but one who—inexplicably and inexcusably from the government’s point of view—had failed to perform the requisite ideological volte face after the 1978 return to power of Deng Xiaoping and the Party’s repudiation of Cultural Revolution-era political theory. It should also be noted that over the several years following Mao’s death and the ascendancy of the new political line, thousands of Zhu’s fellow “die-hard ultra-leftists” across China were arrested and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment on various counts of counterrevolution. So why was Zhu, presumably following his initial detention or arrest on such charges, not dealt with in similar fashion, but rather referred by the police for forensic-psychiatric assessment and then found to be mad? Zhu’s case affords several vital clues that help elucidate the curious dividing line drawn by China’s medico-legal authorities between “political crime” and “political insanity.”

The first aspect of Zhu’s case that seems to have raised forensic psychiatric eyebrows was the fact that Zhu had in no sense acted covertly or “conspiratorially” in the way he developed and publicized his contrarian political theories: as was noted earlier, this is widely taken in China to be a prima facie indication of mental instability, on the implicit assumption that “proper” political dissidents have “sufficient sense of self-preservation” assiduously to conceal their activities from the authorities, through fear of the stern judicial punishment they would otherwise suffer.

Second, the authorities evidently saw Zhu’s endeavors in the realm of political theory as somehow “incompatible” with his status as a mere worker. This condescending attitude may seem surprising in view of the strong emphasis placed by Mao on the importance of China rearing a new generation of “worker intellectuals” after 1949. But Zhu was a longtime Party member who had at one time risen to the relatively important position of vice-chair of his local Revolutionary Committee, so he was surely entitled to have more than a passing interest in political theory. What the authorities appear to have taken primary exception to, however, is Zhu’s original authorial efforts in this field, and in particular their detailed and extensive nature. In the official medico-legal view, only academic scholars or Party theorists are supposed to engage in this type of activity; for ordinary members of the public to do so is apparently seen as being not just eccentric, but also—and especially where dissident-type theories are being advanced—indicative of an underlying mental abnormality.

Third, there was the alleged “conceptual chaos” of Zhu’s theoretical writings: this represents perhaps the most sinister aspect of the authorities’ forensic psychiatric “case” against his sanity. What is significant, however, is that no substantive evidence was raised to suggest that Zhu was in any way cognitively impaired, or that his thoughts were indeed “chaotic” or disconnected. The evidence that was officially given pertained solely to his ideas and theories themselves: these were “wrong,” “obstinate” and “politically deluded,” and the fact that Zhu persisted in holding them, even after receiving an official warning, was identified as a sign of “utter political lunacy.” The authorities’ stated belief that Zhu’s “overall mental activity remained normal” and their observation that even his own family viewed him as sane, was seen, not as undermining the final diagnosis of “paranoid psychosis,” but rather as in effect confirming it.

The above case is not one drawn from the obscure archives of China’s revolutionary past. It was published in Beijing in 1994 in an official training manual for Chinese forensic psychiatrists. It was thus presumably seen as a typical illustrative case, the concluding diagnosis being one fully appropriate for study and emulation by others in the legal-psychiatric profession today.

Case study excerpted from “Judicial Psychiatry in China and its Political Abuses,” by Robin Munro, in Columbia Journal of Asian Law, Spring 2000 issue.