Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Le système politique chinois. Un nouvel équilibre autoritaire (The Chinese Political system: A new authoritarian balance)

Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2014, 708 pp.

Review by Benoît Vermander


In 1994, Jean-Pierre Cabestan published Le système politique de la Chine populaire (The political system of the People’s Republic of China – PUF). What he now offers 20 years later around the same theme is vastly enlarged and reworked. The difference between the titles of the first and second books is significant: apart from the strictly institutional aspect, it is the “Chinese” political system that is the issue, a system that combines and continues to integrate increasingly varying historical, cultural, and social aspects in a system in perpetual evolution and a “new and atypical” construction (p. 20). The new book explores a paradox: institutions set up just after 1949 still endure (albeit profoundly refurbished in their 1979 interpretation), even under the unprecedented economic, cultural, and social upheavals of the preceding three decades. What is presented is not a simple description of institutions but an attempt at comparative political science that grapples with the complexity, endurance, and transformation of relations between the authorities and society. The thesis may be summarised thus: it is not possible to understand the permanence of institutions amidst social upheavals they are supposed to govern without setting out the hypothesis of a “degrading continuum of the authorities, their forums, and influence on the one hand and society, structures, and social relations on the other” (pp. 20-21). By reasoning in terms of “continuum” rather than “opposition” it becomes possible to formalise the capacity for adaptation and consolidation in mainland China’s Party-state system.

The book’s introduction theorises these issues while offering a synthesis of work over the last 20 years pertaining to Chinese politics. It contrasts foreign approaches with those dominant in China itself (often concerned with “localisation” of problems), noting, however, the emergence of studies carried out by joint teams of Chinese and foreign academics. The main body of the book is divided into two parts. Part I, “Institutions,” contains 11 chapters examining the way in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) understands and expresses its mission and its organisational principles, its leading organs, its apparatus, and its finances, before turning to the Constitution and state institutions, administration, judicial system, People’s Congresses, Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, the consultative system, and finally the PLA. The result is a veritable schema of the regime and its institutions, from their starting axioms on into the details of their functions.

Part II considers the “degraded continuum” between “regime and society,” articulated around four issues: concentric circles of official political society; corruption; diversification of forms of political participation; and control of ethnic minority regions. The conclusion of Part II hesitates between two observations: on the one hand, “political authorities are still attempting to guide and channel the social corps but control it less and less” (p. 591); and on the other, “the emergence of new elites and – linked to that – new forms of political participation in a large sense, have helped the CCP retain its status while being in sync with all, or at least the majority, of the social corps” (p. 592).

A similar hesitation is to be found in the overall conclusion, perhaps overly focused on the issue of the possible duration of the regime’s survival and scenarios of democratisation. The prudence of formulations in the scenarios outlined does not, however, prevent the author from observing in fine that “in China, as elsewhere, freedom and democracy are not granted, they are fought for” (p. 613).

The section devoted to institutions is remarkably structured, documented, and argued. It is difficult to think of a better synthesis to offer students and foreign actors seeking to understand the politico-institutional system they are dealing with. Part II is briefer as well as more selective: it attempts to clarify the main factors that could explain how transformations of the regime and society are taking place even as institutions remain formally unchanged. The chapter on selection of elites helps understand and explain the resilience of the Party-state, the organisational and control capabilities of which remain sound. The overview on corruption is clear, but the problem’s complexity and speed of change render any approach to the phenomenon incomplete. The study of forms of political participation is strikingly detailed but would have benefited from deeper theoretical treatment, given that debate over the very notion of civil society and its implications for the country’s future remains robust among Chinese sociologists and political scientists. More generally, the book could have offered a more precise glimpse into the debate around issues of society and governance as pursued in China, a richer one and perhaps containing optimism only hinted at here. Finally, the chapter on minority nationalities raises the question of evolution (or non-evolution) of institutions with that of national security challenges as perceived by the regime.

Other dimensions could have been added to the analysis, and the “continuum” issue could have gained from more precise theoretical explanation. However, at the end of Part II it is clear that by choosing the issues of elites, corruption, modes of participation, and “boundaries,” the author has rightly picked four sensitive points of articulation between the Party-state and society. On the whole, they explain both the formal resilience of institutions and the growing chasm between their spirit and what is driving Chinese society today.

The book’s length allows for easy perusal. It is a reference work that could be read at one go and also be used for checking some principle, practical aspect, political system, or other. The well-thought-out bibliography constitutes an excellent research tool. Despite the difficulty of the task, a happy balance has been struck between the presentation of institutional and legal data and attention to day-to-day political and administrative functions. Further, the intensity of challenges facing the CCP are repeatedly stressed and explained. The book would therefore be useful for all those still concerned with the reasons behind the choices made by the Xi Jinping administration since it came to power: current developments indirectly confirm the wisdom of a number of the author’s observations. Beyond or within the study of economic, cultural, and social change, renewed attention to the strictly political dimension of China’s course is needed, and this book makes a remarkable contribution in setting out the nature and challenges of this course.

Translated by N. Jayaram.

Benoît Vermander is Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy, Fudan University, Shanghai (

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