China’s notion of sovereignty – 独立自主

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Sovereignty is a key concept within international relations. It is commonly used in the real world – it is enshrined within the workings of international institutions and has been a contested concept within the Brexit discourse and Chinese foreign policy.

Sovereignty is also very common in International Relations discipline. It is a key assumption in realism and neo-liberal institutionalism. Moreover, the idea of sovereignty is a key component of IR constructivist scholarship when discussing the emergence of the norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Sovereignty is, moreover, a primary institution in English School literature.

With its prevalence in International Relations discipline, it should not be surprising that it remains a contested concept and there does not seem to be a settled definition on what “sovereignty” really is.

The modern concept of sovereignty is first developed by Bodin, who stated that sovereignty is the absolute power over a territory which only obligations and conditions are dictated by God and nature.

Sovereignty as a norm – Principle of sovereignty as a grundnorm of international society, and widely taken up by the constructivist literature in International Relations as a crucial norm which guides the actions of actors in the international stage

Complementary definitions of internal/external sovereignty – Internal sovereignty as supreme authority within a territory’s inhabitants, while external sovereignty as independence from unwanted intervention by an outside authority.

Pooled sovereignty – The sharing of decision-making power amongst members, most notably seen in the European Institution.

Conditional sovereignty – The notion of conditionality has become more prominent since the 1980s and 1990s, which placed the traditional concepts of sovereignty up against human right norms in international societies. Sovereignty is therefore a “responsibility” (Responsibility to Protect) and should not be regarded as absolute.

Despite the discussions of sovereignty being very common in IR discipline and the real world, it still remains a western-centric concept. Indeed, the idea of a system of sovereign states established in 1648 in the Treaty of Westphalia remains one of the founding myths of International Relations discipline.

This piece therefore attempts to provide a different approach towards sovereignty, as expressed in Chinese official documents. The piece that will I will be focusing on is 坚持和运用好毛泽东思想活的灵魂, a speech that President Xi made in 2013.

In this speech, President Xi talks about the importance of sovereignty (独立自主). Importance of sovereignty in the Chinese context is threefold.

Firstly, sovereignty is crucial for China due to its internal conditions and lessons from history.

独立自主是我们党从中国实际出发,依靠党和人民力量进行革命,建设, 改革的必然结论。不论过去,现在和将来,我们都要把国家和民族发展放在自己力量的基点上,坚持民族自尊心和自信心,坚定不移走自己的路。在中国这样一个人口众多和经济文化落后的东方大国进行革命和建设的国情与使命,决定了我们只能走自己的路。

Therefore, sovereignty is not only that external forces should not interfere with China’s internal affairs, but that sovereignty is also linked to China developing its own developmental path. The speech suggests that due to China’s internal conditions – a large population and a national economy that is relatively backwards, China needs to unerringly continue on with their own development path and not be attracted or swayed by external pressures.

Secondly, sovereignty is essential for China because it prevents China from relying on external forces, as it will have detrimental effects for China.


Here President Xi expresses the idea that if a country relies on external forces to grow, the outcome for the country will either be failure or becoming subordinate to other countries.

Finally, sovereignty is crucial to protecting China’s model of socialism with Chinese characteristics.


Sovereignty is, as perceived by China, a necessary pre-condition for the enactment of China’s model of socialism with Chinese characteristics. China’s insistence on the international community to respect China’s sovereignty seems therefore to be a justification for China’s model of Socialism with Chinese characteristics. If China’s sovereignty is breached in any way shape or form, it may delegitimise China’s model.

Sovereignty, and the notion of 独立自主, therefore has a particular context when placed in the Chinese context. In particular, sovereignty in the Chinese context is a necessary pre-condition for the CCP to adopt its model of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and pursue the Chinese Dream. Understanding how the CCP understands sovereignty can lead to a better understanding of how and why the China’s foreign ministry respond in relation to international community’s accusations on Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

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