All too many places have the form of democracy—elections—without the substance. Hong Kong, just about uniquely, has the opposite: most of the substance—a free press, independent courts, rule of law, privacy protections, etc.—without the form. The territory suffers having a significant democratic deficit, a situation that Christopher Patten, the “last governor”, famously called “liberty without democracy”.

One need look no further than Britain’s impending departure from the European Union for an example of how once apparently dormant elements of a nation’s self-image can be reawakened. An abiding historical sense of aloofness and suspicion of Europe, which seemed to have been quelled by the forces of globalisation in recent decades, has emerged in the last year with renewed vigour. Evident also in the appeal of Trump to persistent American notions of exceptionalism, the flattening of specific cultural characteristics engendered by globalisation seems not to have greatly shifted the fundamentals of how these countries view both themselves and the outside world.

China today is ruled by a party-state totalitarian dictatorship. That is the conclusion of Stein Ringen’s thoughtful and careful analysis in his new book The Perfect Dictatorship. It is a conclusion that will be unpopular and challenged in Asian and other world capitals, where it is a strongly held belief (or hope) that China’s government is a “normal”, traditional authoritarian regime and can be dealt with accordingly.

The dynamics between the central administration in imperial Chinese dynasties and local levels of administration since the first unification under the short lived Qin in 220 BCE and the ways in which the shadow of these persist to this day is an enormous subject. It is curious, as Jae Ho Chung points out in the preamble to this short but intense and highly rewarding monograph, why so little attention has been paid to this subject.