Mandarins in segments

Chinese Politics and Society
October 3, 1997

This substantial book is aimed at undergraduate students in the social sciences and humanities, and it should prove very useful as a comprehensive and fairly sophisticated introduction to the topic accessible to any student, not just Chinese studies specialists. Other books are already available which cover the structure and workings of Chinese political and state institutions quite adequately, but what makes this volume of greater value for teaching are sections such as its introduction to the debate on theoretical approaches to Chinese politics. Like most of the book, this is written in a clear, jargon-free and accessible style, while at the same time helping the reader come to grips with a specialist and rather abstract vocabulary that can often be a barrier to understanding when students are faced with articles in scholarly journals. In addition, specific questions which often seem to baffle students, such as what the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference actually is and does, are answered accurately, succinctly, and on occasion by means of a particularly vivid metaphor: "(In 1978 the CPPCC) had been degraded from a deliberative assembly with a poorly fitting denture to a toothless discussion club which provided its members with yearly free shopping trips to Beijing".

Incidental pleasures in the book for those already familiar with its subject include the authors' polite demolition of the "culturalist" approach to Chinese politics, although perhaps the last sentence ought to have been given even greater prominence, in one of the separate boxes that punctuate the main text: "Culturalist approaches are still very common, and generally not very useful for an understanding of Chinese politics." In the light of Sir Edward Heath's comments this year on the fundamental unsuitability of the Chinese for democracy, this is a point which cannot be made too often.

The sections of the book covering the political history of China from the 19th century to the present are clear and highly readable. The general histories on which the authors draw here are themselves readily available to students, but this volume's political focus gives an inevitable broad-brush account added coherence without the sacrificing of too much detail. Of course, specialists can nitpick over omissions and over-simplifications (I would take issue with several of the book's assertions about industrial organisation in China and the cultural revolution), but in general these parts of the book do their job well.

An extremely useful feature is the book's excellent and very contemporary bibliography. Given the nature of the moving target that is post-Mao and post-Deng China, such lists are bound to become outdated in some fields almost before they are published, but I think this collection of further reading will be of value for some years to come. All teachers and students of contemporary China will find this volume a welcome addition to the resources available to them.

Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in international history, Keele University.

Chinese Politics and Society

Author - Flemming Christiansen and Shirin Rai
ISBN - 0 13 354656 X
Publisher - Prentice Hall
Price - £14.95
Pages - 332

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