Tag Archive | "Xue Hanqin"

The Great Wall of China

Chinese Perspectives Part 3: Sovereignty

“In the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, the principle of sovereignty ranks first.  It is the main principle to which the other four principles are related.  It is linked to territorial integrity and supplemented by the principles of non-intervention and non-aggression.  Equality and mutual benefit is the concrete expression of the sovereignty of a State, while peaceful coexistence is premised upon the respect of the sovereignty of states.”

This passage from Wang Tieya’s 1984 course illustrates the primacy of sovereignty in the Chinese model.  It comes as no surprise that China guards its sovereignty so jealously, considering its history of international relations.  China sees its sovereignty as being threatened by Western powers and considers this threat to be an affront to the fundamental principles of international law.  The theme of sovereignty was just as manifest in Judge Xue’s 2011 lecture as it was in Professor Wang’s 1984 version.

As Judge Xue stated in her lecture, sovereignty is a “perpetual theme for China, both theoretically and practically.”  China adheres strictly to this principle and its contents, which require “supremacy internally and independence externally.”  In China’s view, sovereignty is and should remain the basis of the world order.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

According to Judge Xue, the concept of sovereign equality rejects the existence of supranational bodies.  Thus, the European focus on regional organizations and supranational governance is evidence of a paradigmatic shift away from sovereign equality in favor of world government.  But the attack of sovereignty does not stop at the border of the European Union.  The west’s treatment of developing nations further suggests to Judge Xue that sovereignty is under attack worldwide and requires protection.

Judge Xue stated a belief that the west’s attempts to retain dominance in the formation of international norms and control of international structures are a threat to the sovereignty of developing nations.  This phenomenon, according to Judge Xue, explains the focus on human rights and global governance, the frequent use of intervention to achieve these goals, and a weakening of sovereign equality on the whole.  From the Chinese perspective, intervention of this sort has its historical roots in overt imperialist goals and continues to this day under a different name.  Humanitarian intervention of a failed state has become the norm, regardless of whether the failure is the result of internal armed conflict, economic issues, or human rights violations, as they are properly understood.

From Judge Xue’s criticism of intervention – that it is employed to counter internal armed conflict, economic crises, and human rights violations alike – one can infer that the Chinese issue with the status quo does not lie in the existence of intervention but the indiscriminate use of such intervention.  While human rights violations, “properly understood,” may require third party intervention, countries should be left to handle internal armed conflicts and economic crises as they see fit.  What constitutes a “proper” understanding of human rights violations is a highly contentious question – one that will be left for Part 5 of this series.

None of this is to say that China sees its role in the international community as that of an autonomous outsider.  As Judge Xue rightly noted, no state can act alone, and all states, including China, are bound by treaties that that must be followed in good faith.  Moreover, China interprets the term “treaty” broadly to include memoranda of understanding, joint communiqués, and other instruments lacking the formality of a typical treaty.  China sees an important role for international law in the area of serious international crimes and has made significant contributions in that area.

However, China strongly prefers to deal bilaterally as opposed to multilaterally and insists on negotiating with a state with which it is in conflict before the international community steps it.  It sees international organizations as trying to reshape the international law creation process, silencing the voices of developed countries.

Judge Xue framed the central issue correctly when she said, “The question is, how should states with different systems and values interact with one another on the international stage?”  For her, and for China, the answer to that question lies in sovereignty, which consists of substantive equality free from superpowers, respect for internal political decisions, and mutual agreement on freedom, equality, respect for the environment, and respect for human rights.

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Treaty of Nanjing

Chinese Perspectives Part 2: History

To understand anything about the contemporary Chinese perspective on international law, one must have a cursory understanding of China’s history of international relations. In this regard, Chinese history can be divided into three distinct periods: 1842 to 1949, 1949 to 1978, and 1978 to the present.

Treaty of Nanjing

Treaty of Nanjing

The first period begins on August 29, 1842 with the coerced signing of the Treaty of Nanjing and ends on October 1, 1949 with the creation of the People’s Republic of China. Professor Wang described this period as “the unequal treaty regime” because it was characterized by China signing treaties with imperial powers while under duress; treaties which were highly detrimental to China’s own interests.


The most egregious example from this period came in the form of the infamous Twenty-one Demands made by Japan upon China. In 1915, the Qing Dynasty had just been overthrown in the Xinhai Revolution, leaving China in a politically vulnerable state of transition. At the same time, Japan had recently emerged as an imperialist power after its victories in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War. With an eye towards “gobbling up the whole of China, ” Japan occupied the Chinese province of Shangdong and presented the Twenty-one Demands to the President of the New Republic of China, along with an ultimatum that the Chinese president accede to the demands or Japan would retaliate with the use of force. Accordingly, President Yuan Shikai signed this treaty of “national betrayal and humiliation ” which, inter alia: recognized Japan’s predominant position in Shangdong, Manchuria, and Inner Mongolia, provided for the joint Japanese-Chinese operation of China’s iron and steel industries, and mandated control by Japan of China’s political, financial, and police administrations through the imposition of Japanese officials within Chinese administrative structures.

The Twenty-one Demands are representative of many of the treaties China signed during the unequal treaty regime in that they were between China and an imperialist power, signed under duress, accompanied by a threat of force, and contained provisions that seriously impaired China’s sovereign integrity. Chen Tiqiang explains the paradigm by stating, “The whole system of international law, its principles and its rules, were considered operative essentially only in relations among Western powers, the co-called ‘civilized’ or ‘Christian’ countries, while China was not a ‘civilized’ country.”

The second pertinent period began on October 1, 1949 with the founding of the PRC and ended in 1978 when China began its process of “opening up.” During this period, China was actively precluded from participation in the development of international law. Western powers simply did not regard the People’s Republic of China as a legitimate state, such that it could be a part of the international community. As a result, the most populous country in the world was not admitted to the United Nations until October 25, 1971.

During this second period, China developed its own identity relative to the world and began the process of institutionalizing international law in society. Because of its unique situation, China established what could be described as a dual identity during the Cold War period. On the one hand, China found an obvious ally in the Eastern Bloc due to a shared political and economic ideology. On the other hand, China identified with developing countries due to their shared history and troubles. With this identity in mind, China began inviting legal scholars to China to develop a system of diplomacy in accordance with international legal principles. China sought to conduct its international affairs using the principles of equality, mutual benefit, and mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Only during the final period, starting in 1978 when China opened up economically and continuing to the present, did it become a full member of the international community. Since then, it has become party to over 300 multilateral conventions and is now active in the creation of international law in all fields. In 2009, the Chinese Society of International Law conducted a study which found that over 600 universities offer courses in international law, 64 universities offer masters programs, and 16 universities offer doctoral programs. The importance placed on international law in the modern Chinese educational system shows that China takes the development of international law seriously and sees itself as an important player in the process.

In short, China has gone from being a victim of international law to an outside observer of international law and is now an active participant in international law. Contrasting this history with that of the Western powers, who have been active and equal participants in the development of international law since its inception, makes it easy to understand why a pronounced difference in perspectives persists. While an appreciation for Chinese history is essential in understanding China’s position on all areas of international law, it is particularly relevant to the nation’s position on the concept of sovereignty. The next installment of this series will focus on the importance China places on state sovereignty.

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law