Saturday, October 23, 2021

Video Recording of Larry Catá Backer on Sovereignty and Hong Kong Protests: Penn State JLIA Speakers' Series 10-2021

The Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs invited me to address our community as part of their Speaker Series on one of the more interesting themes of my recently published book, Hong Kong Between 'One Country' and 'Two Systems (about, videos and free chapters HERE; purchase here). That theme focused on the way that discourses of sovereignty significantly shaped and were shaped by emerging discourses of sovereignty, sovereign rights, and most importantly, the divisibility of sovereignty in a world in which autonomous sovereign actors are no longer a function of or tied to a physical territory. These competing discourses were curated and developed to a high degree during the course of the protests in Hong Kong between June 2019 and June 2020.

The focus of the presentation was on the emergence of three distinctive approaches to sovereign governance (and their implications) that played a role in the narrative battles around the Hong Kong protests of 2019-2020. The three principal narratives of sovereignty were: (1) Internal sovereign partitioning under or within a superior national constitutional order; (2) External sovereign partitioning under or within international law or norms; and (3) Shared sovereign partitioning. 

These were woven against the contests over the control of the meaning and application of the "One Country/Two Systems" principle of Hong Kong political organization. The Chinese central authorities became staunch defenders of the first approach, which aligned territorial and operational sovereignty and relegated autonomy to a discretionary exercise within the constraints of the national constitutional order. The US/UK and the international community elaborated at least two variations of the second position. The first variation was grounded strictly on the application of the international instrument under which sovereignty was transferred from the UK to China. The second variation posited to the full range of international law protections, from self-determination to protection of of the full range of human rights in international norms and law. The protester community within Hong Kong moved toward advocacy of the third position. This one was grounded on the idea that the unit against which compliance was to be measured was the people of Hong Kong who were recast as an indigenous people with their own character and aspirations all worthy of protection irrespective of the text of the international instruments of sovereign transfer of territory. 

The narrative contests were not just sophisticated abstract game playing.  Each produces substantial consequences for the way in which governments relate to each other to the subject peoples. A focus on internally centered sovereign partitioning produces a move to binary categorization: patriots versus those shirking their responsibilities within the nation; domestic versus foreign interference; coordination with the state at the center versus contradiction destabilizing the state, and the like.  The Hing Kong National Security Law embodies this approach to autonomy within sovereignty.  For the international community one focuses on legalisms bound by the narratives of contract.  That is the position that sees in the Sion-British Joint Declaration a contract the terms of which must be performed and enforced, if need be, by the international community on whom the legitimacy of international (contract discursive) law rests. Each of these narratives The consequences for each position was then discussed. A broader reading of international legalism understands both that sovereignty may be fractured along a number of different lines, that such a fracturing was undertaken in this case and that the laws and norms of the international community then both define the terms of that fracturing and must police compliance. The position of the in the protester community then take that one level further.  It is grounded in a sense of the people of Hong Kong as autonomously indigenous and distinct from the rest of China and thus subject to the protection of international law and norms  to the protection of their own legitimate expectations to evolve their political and social order in accordance with the needs, cultures, and context of the SAR (rather than of the Chinese people as a whole).

The video of the presentation may be accessed HERE.

The PPT follow.  



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