Problematic Sovereignty on China’s Periphery: A Case Study of Post-1997 Hong Kong

Conveners: OI and OSGA

Speaker: Dr. Ming-chin Monique Chu , University of Southampton.


 Problematic sovereignty refers to a political entity with some, but not all, of the trappings of sovereignty. This paper develops a new and nuanced typology of sovereignty before studying the under-explored phenomena of problematic sovereignty on China’s periphery by focusing on the polity of Hong Kong (HK) since 1997. The nuanced typology of sovereignty includes international legal sovereignty in de jure and de facto terms, Westphalian sovereignty, and domestic sovereignty. The empirical analysis of the HK case study is based on a vast array of original data collected from the ground including elite interviews conducted from 2014 to 2018 and ethnographic observations. China has departed from the traditional sovereignty script in HK over the course of the negotiations leading up to the Joint Declaration, which provides the foundation of the implementation of the “One Country, Two Systems” in post-1997 HK. Despite its partial violations of international legal, Westphalian and domestic sovereignty, which has resulted in the HK Special Administration Region (HKSAR) government’s embrace of a high degree of autonomy, changes in post-1997 HK in sovereignty terms imply that China is determined to expand its grip on HK in the domain of international legal sovereignty in de facto terms and that of domestic sovereignty. In the latter, China has enlarged its domestic sovereignty at the expenses of that in the hands of HK through the introduction of a series of repressive policies since 2003; this has been made possible via the HKSAR government’s increasing role as the executor of Beijing’s will due to pitfalls in the polity’s institutional designs, and through the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s power to interpret the Basic Law. However, the continuous protests in post-1997 HK, the emergence of the localist discourse, as well as the ensuing rise of the call for self-determination and HK independence continue to challenge China’s enlarging domestic sovereignty over HK. The changes in China’s attitudes towards HK can be arguably explained by fluctuations in Beijing’s interest calculations pertaining to HK. As HK’s GDP accounted for 3% of the Chinese total in 2015 from 30% in 1997, HK’s importance to China has dwindled over time. With the decreasing interest comes with China’s diminishing desire to make any major concessions regarding HK. Moreover, with the rise of Chinese power in material terms, China has become more and more adamant to the proposal to change the status quo of HK, such as demands to democratize HK through a genuine election of its top leader, that it views as detrimental or threatening to its regime security. As Ghai (2014) puts it, China seems comfortable with a capitalist HK without political rights, and “it was not capitalism but democracy that threatened the Mainland system and the authority of its self-appointed leadership.” The paper is timely and important as centrifugal tendencies in volatile regions on China’s periphery other than HK may potentially destabilize China as a fledging superpower.


Dr. Ming-chin Monique Chu is Lecturer in Chinese Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Southampton. She gained her PhD degree in international relations from the University of Cambridge. She’s the author of The East Asian Computer Chip War (Routledge, 2013/2016) and the co-editor of Globalization and Security Relations across the Taiwan Strait: In the Shadow of China (Routledge 2014/2016, with Scott L. Kastner). Her articles have appeared in The China Quarterly and China Perspectives. Her research interests include the impact of production globalization on international security with reference to the semiconductor industry, the concept and practice of problematic sovereignty, Chinese foreign policy, Cross-Strait relations, as well as Taiwan’s foreign relations.