17 August 2019
Then Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang (right, front row) poses for a photo with world leaders at an APEC summit. Hong Kong is a full member of APEC.   Photo: Government Information Services
Then Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang (right, front row) poses for a photo with world leaders at an APEC summit. Hong Kong is a full member of APEC. Photo: Government Information Services

Theory and truth of Hong Kong’s sub-sovereignty

The director of the central government liaison office in Hong Kong is usually called “Beijing’s top envoy” in the local media. Likewise many foreigners simply refer to the office of the commissioner of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the territory as the “Chinese embassy”.

This is unofficial proof that many people continue to regard Hong Kong as a separate entity from mainland China.

Such general references point to the fact that Hong Kong, although politically one of the two special administrative regions of China, enjoys de facto sub-sovereignty.

This derives from the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s “constitution”, which stipulates in Chapter VII: External Affairs that “Hong Kong may on its own maintain and develop relations and conclude and implement agreements with foreign states and regions and relevant international organizations in the appropriate fields, including the economic, trade, financial and monetary, shipping, communications, tourism, cultural and sports fields”.

Although the Basic Law categorizes the arrangement as an integral part of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, such autonomy largely overlaps with the scope of sovereignty of an independent country as normally only the central authorities can develop relations and conclude agreements with foreign countries and international organizations.

Indeed, the Hong Kong government enjoys a wide spectrum of sovereignty rights that even a state within a federal country is not entitled to, like sending its own delegation to the Olympic Games.

There is a long list of international organizations — mainly comprising independent countries — in which Hong Kong is a full member. These include the World Trade Organization, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, World Customs Organization, World Health Organization, Asian Development Bank, Bank for International Settlements and World Meteorological Organization.

At APEC summits, the Hong Kong Chief Executive attends plenary meetings, holds bilateral talks and appears in group photos along with other world leaders. Hong Kong joined APEC in 1991.

Hong Kong also sends representatives as members of the Chinese delegation to G-20, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Criminal Police Organization, etc.

The government also has the autonomy to negotiate free trade agreements with other countries. Currently Hong Kong is negotiating such a deal with 10 ASEAN countries.

The territory has also established economic and trade offices in the United States, Britain, Australia, Japan, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Germany and Singapore. These offices enjoy the same rank as foreign embassies in these countries.

Another example is Hong Kong’s authority to issue its own legal tender. Also, the Hong Kong flag and emblem are perhaps among the most distinctive symbols of the territory’s sub-sovereignty.

Simon Shen Xu Hui, a local scholar who specializes in international studies, told the Hong Kong Economic Journal that although “sub-sovereignty” is a newly coined term, the concept of sovereignty can indeed be divided into multiple levels including supra-sovereignty (like the European Union) and sub-sovereignty (like the Hong Kong SAR and the political status of Scotland within the United Kingdom). And, the discussion can go further to related concepts like “quasi-sovereignty” (like the British East India Company).

Despite all the facts of sub-sovereignty that Hong Kong has, there was little discussion until the Manila bus hostage crisis in 2010 when former Chief Executive Donald Tsang tried to make phone calls to Philippines President Benigno Aquino but failed to reach him.

Tsang’s move back then stirred controversy. Some, especially Beijing loyalists in the city, lashed out at him saying it was diplomatically inappropriate for him, as the head of a special administrative region, to call the head of a foreign country. Later it was reported that Aquino called Tsang back to apologize for the tragedy.

Shen argues that although the Chinese central government is responsible for Hong Kong’s defense and diplomatic affairs, rescuing hostages and handling the aftermath of the incident together with the Filipino side is in Hong Kong’s own hand when it comes to relevant external affairs as written in the Basic Law.

–Contact the writer at [email protected]


Hong Kong’s sovereignty rights mean it could send its own delegation to the 2012 London Olympic Games. Photo: Government Information Services

EJ Insight writer

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