The Sub-State Actor

“The Sub-State Actor: Hong Kong, Macau, and a New Definition for Sovereignty” is my undergraduate thesis for Harvard College, where I attempt to use Hong Kong and Macau as case studies towards a continuous definition of soveriegnty: one that is separate from the idea of statehood, and one that allows certain places to be more sovereign than others.

The mainstream model of international relations theory only has room for one type of sovereign actor: the state. Either an actor is sovereign, or it is not; there is no room between these two extremes. In addition, the idea of sovereignty is equivalent to statehood: only states are sovereign, and the only sovereign entities are states. However, this model is based off a small data-set: Western Europe, specifically from the 16th to 20th centuries. The current world system features many examples of “quasi-sovereignty,” whose sovereignty lies between complete autonomy and complete subordination. Autonomous regions like Hong Kong and Macau, the subjects of this thesis, are places with increasing de facto sovereignty, despite lacking de jure sovereignty. These can be contrasted with the increasing number of nominally sovereign states that have given up control of certain policies to supranational institutions. The best example of this trend is the European Union, and the diminished sovereignty of member states. Thus, the traditional model of sovereignty is ill-suited to explain the real international system.

My thesis attempts to create a new definition for sovereignty that avoids the main problem with the traditional definition: its binary nature. I propose a definition that is both continuous and disconnected from the idea of statehood. This definition allows non-state actors to be considered sovereign, at least to a certain extent, reflecting their increased policy autonomy. It also allows for comparison between different entities, allowing us to determine whether one state can have more or less sovereignty than another.

My thesis constructs this definition through an analysis of Hong Kong and Macau’s experiences since their respected Handovers. Both the SARs are two territories where the level of expressed policy autonomy most approaches the level of the average state. Neither Hong Kong nor Macau are de jure sovereign, despite their control of fiscal, monetary, social, judicial, and countless other policies. Hong Kong and Macau’s autonomy is also formally designated in the Basic Law – their constitutions – allowing for easy analysis of their sovereignty. Finally, these systems emerged sui generis; the SARs could thus be considered an experiment in constructing a new relationship between a parent state and its sub-state entities.

The analysis of Hong Kong’s experience since the Handover focuses on a number of issues where Hong Kong’s high level of sovereignty experiences friction with the greater Chinese state. Specifically, these issues are Hong Kong’s growing separate identity, immigration, Article 23 and national education. These ‘fault lines’ imply two elements that constitute a new continuous definition of sovereignty: the level of localized control and the strength of a separate identity.

The end-result of this project is the creation of a two-dimensional framework. Each axis corresponds to the two elements of sovereignty: localized control and separate identity. An entity’s level of sovereignty could theoretically be determined by measuring an entity’s performance on these two variables, and plotting its position.

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