Regime theory ambitiously attempts to offer a new perspective on the most fundamental differences between societies and peoples. To reflect on regime—on how the regime of our own society differs from those of other societies—means to explore our world’s deepest politico-cultural divergences. This also entails self-reflection on what differentiates “people like us” from the world’s many “thems.” Consider that the regime under which we live, disciplines us in a particular way. It thereby differentiates our habitus, our style of life, from those disciplined by other regimes.

Here my preliminary reflections on the foundations of the Chinese regime.

Dr. Eric Cornelis Hendriks, Peking University


China vs. the West: A Regime Comparison

Introduction to Regime Theory

Regime theory: a preliminary sketch

Two pluralisms

Regime theory is concerned with the connection between two kinds of pluralism: the field pluralism within societies, on the one hand, and the pluralism of coexisting societal types or regimes in the world at large, on the other. Regarding the former, every modern society consists of various differentiated parts or fields, such as politics, religion, the military, scholarship, art, the legal field, state bureaucracy, sports, and journalism. There is unity in the diversity, however, because the way in which a society’s plurality of fields is organized, provides that society with a certain unitary and unifying regime. But different societies have different regimes. That is, they stick together differently; their internal plurality is organized in different ways.

This brings us to the second pluralism: the pluralism of regimes and regime types in our contemporary world. Despite the fact that we live in globalizing and seemingly ever-more connected world, regime differences stubbornly persists. The Middle East houses Islamic theocracies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as some of the world’s most brutal autocracies such as Assad’s Syria, while North Korea and China are led by, respectively, totalitarian and semi-totalitarian party-states. Meanwhile, the spectrum of liberal democracies is a wide one. It includes, for example, the highly commercial, business-centered American democracy and the state-centered Scandinavian and Northern European democracies.

To compare national and regional regimes from a social-differentiation perspective, as I intend to do, means to expose a highly Eurocentric theoretical school developed by European scholars from Western examples to non-Western cases. Bourdieu, Luhmann and other social-differentiation theorists focus almost completely on countries such as Germany, France, Britain and the US, so that it is unclear, as these theorists were probably well aware, to what extent their theories are generalizable to non-Western and non-democratic contexts. There are in fact significant differences between the internal social-differentiation of Western liberal democracies and non-Western and non-democratic regimes, and understanding these differences seems crucial to understanding the involved regime divisions.

Though such comparative regime explorations move beyond established social-differentiation theorizing, they do follow in the footsteps of one idiosyncratic, somewhat forgotten social theorist: the late Shmuel Eisenstadt, whose civilizational comparisons centered on the differentiation of societal elites. I aim to renew, refine and expand his daring comparative approach, drawing on political philosophy and the latest innovations in differentiation theory.

Besides this academic contribution, our project attempts to make a wider political and intellectual, even moral, contribution by digging into our world’s deepest politico-cultural divisions. Exploring these also entails self-reflection. You reflect on how the regime of your own society differs from those of other societies. This can—should—also be an exercise in the most confrontational kind of ethical self-evaluation. Consider that a society’s regime (in the holistic Greek sense of politeia) dwells not only in political institutions, but also in values, “instincts,” habits and customs. So, you do not just live under a regime. Rather, the regime is a force that shapes you, that lives in and through you.

Culture is too important to be described as “culture”

The central insight of regime theory is that societies possess a holistic character—a regime—that transcends the distinctions between culture, politics and social structure, and between macro-level power structures and the individual’s values, habits and tastes. Correspondingly, the most fundamental and comprehensive differences between societies are regime differences. To conceive of societal differences in this way is to simultaneously stress the importance of “culture,” of historically-grown “cultural differences,” and to speak of them without using the word “culture.”

The reason we try to avoid the term “culture” as much as possible is that its usage can be vague and misleading, even trivializing. Few terms are used as extensively as “culture.” Sometimes it refers to quotidian customs, on other occasions to deeply held convictions by groups of peoples. In yet other contexts, it refers to overall value systems and civilizations. Finally, the term “culture” can also be employed on the micro-level to refer to the prevailing ethos of a company, association or institution. Polluted as it is, we discard the “culture” concept altogether. Instead of comparing cultures, we compare societal regimes. The things usually described as “cultural differences” are manifestations of regime differences. To account for all the seemingly disparate manifestations of “culture”—from the micro-behavioral mundanities of manners and customs to institutional-level characteristics to the fundamental differences between “civilizations”—we employ the term “regime.”

The wording matters, for it carries practical consequences. Thinking in terms of “culture” can lead to resignation vis-à-vis social problems and conflicts, because once these are framed as “cultural,” people tend to see them as irresolvable. As Kenan Malik points out: “Political conflicts are potentially negotiable. Cultural conflicts are far more intractable. As social differences have come to be seen primarily in cultural terms, so conflicts have become less manageable.” Of course regimes are actually deeply inert and hence difficult to change. Still, the regime perspective is more encouraging of critical engagement and conscious action than a “cultural” or “civilizational” perspective, because regime theorizing ties fundamental clashes over values, ideologies and identities to identifiable power structures that can in principle be modified. The suggestion is that you can gradually reassemble a society through persistent dedicated action, though attempts at making fundamental changes face an uphill battle against the forces of raw inertia.

The holistic character of society

The idea of regime implies that each society possesses a holistic character—a regime—which derives from its fundamental power structure. Power is to social relations what energy is to physics: it is ubiquitous, sets things in motion, and assumes many forms. It manifests in the distribution of different types of capital (wealth, attention, education, perceived legitimacy, prestige, and the means of coercive violence) among people, groups and institutions, as well as in what kind of values and habits are influential and authoritative.

Manifestations and understandings of power and authority are remarkably consistent throughout a society. This consistence is created, first, by institutional isomorphism, the process by means of which different kinds of institutions in a country—from private companies and state ministries to schools, sport clubs and associations—tend to attain similar organizational and managerial characteristics. To illustrate, in the Netherlands, my home country, all these tend to have rather egalitarian, “flat” structures, with the social distance between bosses and subordinates being relatively limited, whereas their counterparts in, for example, the People’s Republic of China tend to be very hierarchical.

Second, from our childhood onward, our experiences living within a particular kind of social order forms our “socialized subjectivity,” our habitus, which amongst other things dictates what kind of authority we intuitively consider legitimate and how and why we look up to that authority. Our parents are the first authorities we emulate. As we grow up, we adopt the behavioral traits of others as well. The kinds of authorities we emulate largely depend on our social background in the broadest sense. The school system formalizes the socialization process, as it confronts us with definite models of authority and legitimacy. In the final stage, we undergo a kind of public education, as we interact with others in various societal fields and acquire public and political identities and habits. All of these taken together form the comprehensive and pervasive influence that we call regime.

Regime theorizing derives from Greece. Regime or “politeia” is the central concept in Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, while featuring prominently in Thucydides’ History as well as in other forms of Athenian cultural output. Though the modern word “politics” derives from “politeia,” politeia referred not merely to political phenomena narrowly understood but also to what we would nowadays refer to as “culture” and “social structure.” In his comparative study of democracies, oligarchies, aristocracies, monarchies, and tyrannies, Aristotle holistically defines regime (politeia) as “the arrangement of society’s parts, particularly pertaining to its highest power” and the “way of life [of the citizens].”.

In addition, regime dwells not only on the level of macro-level institutions but also in people’s style of life; in their dispositions, values, social intuitions, tastes, everyday practices and habits. This is what the Greek called “ethos” and what contemporary sociologists nowadays often refer to with the Latin word “habitus.” Habitus is “a socialized subjectivity.” It is the embodiment of a person’s position in, and biographical trajectory through, the social structure, and is experienced as a second nature. In the classical conception, each regime has its dominant ethos or habitus tied to a dominant type of human being. As Leo Strauss explains: “Regime is the order, the form, which gives society its character. Regime is therefore a specific manner of life. It is the form of life as living together, the manner of living of society and in society, since this manner depends decisively on the predominance of human beings of a certain type, on the manifest domination of society by human beings of a certain type.”

Reviving a neglected tradition

The classical regime concept was influential up to Tocqueville, who compared the American and French regimes (1835/1840) and the French regimes before and after the French Revolution (1856). In fact, the modern word “regime” derives from the Revolution’s overthrow of France’s Ancien Régime. But regime theorizing then disappeared from the social sciences due to the rise of historicist and functionalist schools, academic specialization, and “philosophical isolationism.” Hegelian and Marxist historicisms downplayed regime differences in favor of world historical stages, while twentieth-century functionalism downplayed power struggle. Concurrently, the specialization of social-scientific disciplines divided our conception of society into the cultural, the social, the economic and the political. Hence, regime was reduced to “political regime.” When contemporary political scientists compare “political regimes/systems,” they compare the macro-level political institutions of different countries, not their holistic character. Finally, the great champions of classical, holistic regime theorizing in modern philosophy—the Chicago Straussians—isolate their philosophizing from social science, partly for political reasons. Consequently, what is arguably the oldest and most powerful analytical concept of Greek social thought never entered modern social theory.

We revive the classical concept within modern social science, and in order to account for all the complexities of modern life, synthesize it with contemporary theories of social differentiation, particularly Pierre Bourdieu’s. Modern societies are differentiated into social fields: fields such as politics, religion, business, art, journalism and science. Fields, as Bourdieu conceptualizes them, are little “microcosms” within society that carry their own social logic, inner status game and social hierarchy.

But fields are never completely autonomous from society’s general power structure; that is, they are always, to varying degrees, heteronomous, penetrated by the social logics of other fields. In each field, endogenous autonomizing and exogenous heteronomizing forces vie against each other. This takes the form of a competition between more autonomous and more heteronomous players. The former bolster the field’s autonomous status game upon which their power depends, whereas the latter heteronomize the field (i.e. de-differentiate it from society’s general power structure) by using field-external capital (e.g. money, political influence, religious prestige) to gain power inside the field.

Besides in their degree of autonomy, their degree of social differentiation, fields vary in societal dominance. The most powerful field most strongly influences—heteronomizes—other fields across society, thereby determining the character of the regime as it manifests on all levels of society, including in people’s habitus. Hence, the most powerful field corresponds to the dominant and predominant habitus or human type in society. That habitus, that human type, that form of life, provides the regime with its character by setting the tone in society. Concretely, this means, for instance, that in a theocracy led by a clerical elite, society tends to religionize. Likewise, under a junta led by military officers, society tends to militarize; while in a capitalist, free-market democracy with a powerful business elite, society tends to commercialize. The dominant human type pulls the rest of society towards its own form of life, its dominating logic.

As a definition then, we say that regime denotes the way in which social fields, their prestige systems, logics, and conceptions of human accomplishment are differentiated from each other and hierarchized. Consequently, regime differences between societies are differences in the hierarchization of social fields/human types and the degree and manner in which fields/human types are differentiated from each other.

Mapping the regimes of our world

Correspondingly, to understand a society’s regime, you must ask two questions: First, what fields are there in this society? Second, what are the power relations between them? The first question leads to questions regarding field differentiation, such as, Is the state-bureaucracy differentiated from politics? Philosophy from theology? The military from the economy? If yes, to what extent? The second question concerns the power relations between fields. This is the variable of field hierarchization and domination. Here you analyze how fields usurp, divide and share in the fundamental resources and platforms of societal power, in particular the means of coercive violence, wealth, public voice, the power to write the law or set the rituals, and control over the contents of educational curricula.

In a theocracy, the dominant social logic, which most strongly heteronomizes field across society, is that of the religious field, so that, in result, society attains a distinctly religious character. The religious field then forms a kind of master field. It manages to place itself at the top of the societal hierarchy by making its field-specific conception of religious accomplishment count for the highest form of human accomplishment within society; and its religious logic subsequently establishes itself as the dominant heteronomizing force, pulling other fields towards religiosity. The Muslim world houses a number of regimes with strong theocratic tendencies, such as Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Taliban-controlled areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and (at time of writing; 2017) the dwindling Levantine “caliphate” of Islamic State.

Under secular authoritarian regimes, the master field is the political or military field. China, for example, continues to be dominated by an authoritarian political field, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deeply penetrates society. The CCP is the sole master of the Chinese state, with direct control over the military, education, and the media, and indirect control over any major organization including NGOs, law firms, and large private enterprises. Under the CCP’s leadership, political power is not only centralized in one powerful party, but also exerts a much more unhindered and pervasive influence over the rest of society than under democracies. The party-state diminishes the autonomy and independence of fields across Chinese society, from scholarship, journalism and religion to business, the legal field, and the military.

Liberal democracies, finally, are marked by a high degree of field pluralism—that is, a high degree of autonomy on the part of fields across society—rather than by the dominance of a particular type of field. In a highly field-differentiated society, you have many relatively autonomous social fields (e.g. the legal field, the state bureaucracy, journalism, science, business, religion), each with own elite and inner hierarchy, standing alongside each other, forming competing centers of power. Who really leads the US for example? The White House? The Senate? The legal field headed by the Supreme Court? Wall Street and big business? Hollywood and commercial media? The answer is that all of them share power. Even if there is still a cozy upper-class, that upper-class is to a great extent—and certainly to a much greater extent than, for example, its counterpart in the CCP-dominated PRC—divided between independent field elites.

Democratic field pluralism

That liberal democracy grounds in a field-pluralistic society, that it is a type of social structure rather than merely a “political system,” is easy to overlook. Consider that democracy is often merely associated with political elections. Of course well-informed commentators add that liberal democracy also revolves around political checks and balances, the critical public sphere, the open society, and civil virtues such as tolerance. However, what is almost always overlooked is that all these elements of democratic regime, in turn, are outgrowths of a prior and primordial field diversity.

I lack the space here to explore the onto-genetic significance of field pluralism to democracy. Social differentiation is the structural force behind so much of what is commonly known to be crucial to democracy: a free press, the separation of Church and State, academic freedom, independent courts, lawyers and judges, an apolitical military, and free-market business. Each of these involves a social field or system gaining, or trying to gain, professional or value autonomy by shielding itself off from outside intrusions, erecting a wall between itself and its social surroundings, and thereby differentiating itself from those social surroundings. In the above order, they roughly entail, respectively, the differentiation of journalism from politics and business; religion from politics; politics from religion; science from politics and business; the legal field from politics and business; politics from the military; and business from politics. These are the realities and ideals of a socially-differentiated society.

So, though the field-pluralistic regime is messy, fragmenting, morally challenging, and lacking the seductive simplicity of more field-uniform regimes, it carries distinct democratic and liberal virtues. Field pluralism makes societies…

  • more organized and thus empowered vis-à-vis politics, since fields form platforms of alternative power in society, which forces politics to become responsive to the needs of society, or at least to the needs of various elites in society.
  • prone to produce a public sphere, since rival elites representing different and irreconcilable field logics turn to the public sphere to negotiate with one another.
  • less self-contained and more open, because the different field elites, in their fierce competition, reach out to make foreign alliances.
  • bastions of tolerance, because tolerance is the virtue of a chaotic yet vibrant society engaged in managing a wide range of fundamental value conflicts.

The spectrum of Western democracies is a wide one, however. At the opposite poles of the democratic spectrum stand two regime sub-types that are frequently set up as rival models by rival political movements. Much of the social-democratic Left idolizes Scandinavia and Northern Europe, whereas much of the laissez-faire liberal/libertarian Right idolizes the United States. In that sense, and because of the fundamental differences in their social structure, the US and Northern Europe/Scandinavia represent rival models, rendering them a significant object of comparison. From the many fields that share influence in the US, business is the most dominant, whereas among the influential fields in Scandinavia, the state-bureaucratic field, with its bureaucratic social logic or code, is arguably the most dominant.

China’s field-unitary tradition

This focus on field diversification and its connection to democracy is particularly revealing of the longstanding regime difference between the Western world and East Asia. From the Ming dynasty at the latest, through the Qing and Maoist eras, up to the present, China has been far more field-unitary than Western regimes—and, for that matter, the regimes of many other non-Western countries and regions. India, for example, provides a particularly sharp contrast, as it never had anything that resembled East Asia’s authority-centralizing Confucian bureaucracies.

In imperial China, society was dominated by the Central Field of the emperor and the Confucian scholar–officials. These scholar–officials, who worked their way up through the self-contained Confucian exam system, were at once politicians, bureaucrats, philosophers, artists and businessmen. They were supposed to represent human excellence in all its forms, and possess the highest kind of expertise in all forms of higher knowledge. As such, their enormous influence in society aggressively overshadowed and overwrote the prestige systems and social logics of all other social fields. When the world religions tried to establish a foothold in China, representatives of the Central Field either took them under their sway and subdued them (Buddhism) or expelled them to marginal fringes (Christianity, Islam). The Central Field therefore profoundly de-differentiated, heteronomized other fields across society, rendering imperial China highly field-unitary.

Inheriting a field-undifferentiated society in 1948, Maoist-China was immediately more totalitarian—gleichgeschaltet—in field structure than any European “totalitarian” regime ever became. Though China has gained in field diversity since 1978 in the wake of Deng’s Reform and Opening up, it continues to be more field unitary than Western democratic regimes. This is due to the overbearing dominance of the political field under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The Party limits the autonomy of key social fields such as the legal field, the state bureaucracy, scholarship and religion by disrupting their would-be autonomous prestige systems.

This long tradition of Chinese field unity worked its way into the Chinese regime habitus. It manifests in well-known but little understood Chinese “cultural” traits such as respect for authority (as opposed to anti-authoritarianism); an appreciation of harmony (as opposed to tolerance of irreconcilable differences); and an epistemological intuition that privileges the knowledge of the total insider over comparative, outsider perspectives.

Culturalists hang such habitus traits up in the air, depicting them as emerging ex nihilo or out of spiritual sources. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew notoriously referred to them as “Asian values.” In fact, however, these habitus traits reflect the conditions of a field-unitary society. In a field-unitary society, the authority of the leading field and its values is relatively uncontested; the competition between social logics is relatively limited and subdued; and knowledge appears as a closed box—which insiders can access but outsiders are excluded from—rather than as something that can be seen from multiple, equally valuable perspectives.

The opposite habitus traits—anti-authoritarianism, an appreciation of tolerance as a means to managing irreconcilable differences, and a perspectival, open epistemological intuition—belong to a field pluralistic society. That these traits also form core elements of democratic habitus is not coincidental but rather indicates the strong connection between field diversity and democracy. Field diversity has throughout Western history—from ancient Athens to the 17th century Dutch Republic and the modern West—been the great source of democratic habitus and democracy more generally.


Florence ZhouEric C. Hendriks. I am a Dutch postdoctoral fellow in the sociology department of Peking University, China. I studied philosophy, sociology and history at the University of Chicago, Utrecht University, the University of Göttingen, and UC Berkeley, and received my Ph.D. from the University of Mannheim (in cooperation with NYU). Previously I worked for Utrecht University.

Florence Zhou I want to thank my Swedish friend Jens Mikael Klinteskog for his creative input, conversations and real-world insights into regime. He lived in Argentina, Egypt, Syria and China for many years and partook in Syria’s 2011-revolution, supporting the pro-democratic rebels.

Florence Zhou

Also I must thank my Chinese research assistant, Florence Zhou. She studied sociology at Peking University for her BA and is now doing an MA in international development at Sciences Po in France.


Talk for the CS Society, the Netherlands, 2016:

Talk at Peking University:

Talk at the Univ. of Chicago:


Dr. Eric C. Hendriks:

Web design and video editing: Ingmar T. Hendriks