Problematic Sovereignty: Contested Rules and Political Possibilities

By Stephen D. Krasner | Go to book overview

5
One Sovereign, Two Legal Systems:
China and the Problem of Commitment
in Hong Kong
JAMES McCALL SMITH

Sovereignty and Commitment in Hong Kong

The historic transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China (PRC) on July 1, 1997, marked a watershed moment in the annals of China's relations with the West. As the last pocket of officially alien territory on the China coast, Hong Kong had been a prominent and enduring reminder of the system of colonial treaty ports established during the late Qing dynasty, a time of internal division and external weakness on the mainland. 1 During the decades of civil conflict that followed the collapse of imperial rule in 1912, Chinese government officials, both Nationalist and Communist, laid consistent claim to sovereignty over Hong Kong and other treaty ports, which they viewed as a standing affront to China's territorial integrity. 2 Chinese officials thus greeted the territory's long-awaited “return to the motherland” in 1997 by staging celebrations in city squares and stadiums across the mainland and by showering the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) with lavish commemorative gifts. 3 In his inaugural speech Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa described July 1 as “a joyous day for all Chinese people,” who in his words had “finally” become “masters of our own house.” 4

The emotional 1997 transition converted China's long-asserted claim to sovereign control of Hong Kong from rhetorical construct to political reality. Official Beijing policy since at least 1972—when as a new member of the United Nations the PRC successfully requested that Hong Kong be removed

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