Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Chinese – Zhǔquán

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Chinese, Sovereignty

主權  (主权)


Relates to sovereignty

The term is made up of two Chinese characters:

主 – zhǔ – a sovereign; host; owner, master; primary, main; to be in charge[1]

– quán – right; authority and power;[2]

Zhǔquán in ancient Chinese means a sovereign or a king’s power. In the 7th century text, Guanzi (Writings of Master Guan), Master Guan uses the term  zhǔquán in the philosophical idiom, “藏竭則主權衰,法傷則姦門闓補注釋” (Cáng jié zé zhǔquán shuāi, fǎ shāng zé jiān mén kǎi bǔ zhùshì). This translates as ‘If you overdo everything, instead you will result in failure’; with the term zhǔquán used to convey the sense of ‘ownership’ and ‘possession’. In this context, there was emphasis on moderation of state power and reach, or else one’s sovereignty would be exhausted and lost, thus, resulting in failure. In this context, there was emphasis on moderation of state power and reach, and the need to focus on internal and proximate matters that directly relate to the state. In modern times, under the influence of Western political philosophy, zhǔquán in Chinese suggests the government’s inherently legitimate (highest, sublime and absolute) right and power to rule the country domestically and to act independently (including in the area of defence) internationally. It suggests the right to act without foreign interference.

The idea of sovereignty derives from Western political philosophy: the characters for zhǔquán have been used over a long period of time but the modern term was assembled in Japan as a reaction to the influx of European concepts. Traditionally, the political ideas that played an equivalent structural role to contemporary notions of sovereignty were premised on understandings of the relationship between the centre and its peripheries. These were not, however, directly analogous to the conception of sovereignty as understood today, but instead implied the term ‘tiānxià 天下 (under heaven) as a framework for determining civilisation and its ‘others’, that is the ‘barbarians’. Significantly, the definition for zhǔquán appears to be more flexible than that for the English term ‘sovereignty’. Zhǔquán is influenced by older notions of political relationships; traditionally, China did not identify its tributaries as crude vassal states but instead had a degree of flexibility about how those relationships were imagined. To operate under Chinese ‘zhǔquán’ may well allow a greater degree of independence than a Western sovereign relationship might permit.

By way of contrast, the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’, which late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai put forth in 1953 when negotiating with India on the Tibetan issue, provides a framework of China’s contemporary understanding of the idea of “Zhuquan:”

1.          Mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity

2.          Mutual non-aggression

3.          Mutual non-interference with internal affairs

4.          Equality and mutual benefit

5.          Peaceful coexistence

As written in the first principle and demonstrated in practice, China combines the issue of sovereignty and the territorial integrity under one sublime rule in its foreign policy. Therefore, the first statement in China’s official declaration on the protection of its sovereignty is usually that China does not make any concessions concerning territorial integrity; China has the right and power to rule its territories and chooses whatever the political and social system it prefers without any foreign interference. For example, when negotiating with the British government before 1997 on the transfer of the sovereignty of Hong Kong to China, Deng Xiaoping emphasised to Britain that Hong Kong must return to China because such a return of territory matters to China’s “zhǔquán,” and “the issue of zhǔquán is not an issue that can be negotiated.”[3] He also made it clear that China had the right to decide how to rule Hong Kong.[4] The issue of Taiwan, an island that China considers as a “renegade province,” is another territorial issue with strong sovereignty (zhǔquán) implications. For example, China criticizes the United States’ arms sales to Taiwan as ‘interference in China’s domestic affairs and challenging China’s zhǔquán (sovereignty).’On the dispute over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu(tai) Islands (also known as Senkaku Islands), China stated,

‘the Diaoyu Island and its collateral islands belong to China since the ancient time. China’s sovereignty over them is indisputable. The Chinese government’s will and determination to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity is firm.’

Diàoyúdǎo jí qí fùshǔ dǎoyǔ zìgǔ jiùshì zhōngguó de gùyǒu lǐngtǔ, zhōngguó duì cǐ yǒngyǒu wú kě zhēngbiàn de zhǔquán. Zhōngguó zhèngfǔ wéihù zhǔquán hé lǐngtǔ wánzhěng de yìzhì yǔ juéxīn shì jiāndìng bù yí de.


The bitter memory and lessons left over from foreign suppression, invasion, and colonisation in China following the Opium War in 1840 led China to place high value on the element of equality when it comes to sovereignty. ‘Equality’ here suggests China’s belief that zhǔquán of every country should be equal. This belief further explains China’s long-standing strong opposition to hegemonism in the international community. China sees that countries which tend to exercise control or intervene in other countries’ domestic affairs as hegemonic. These countries’ hegemonic behaviour has the potential to threaten China’s zhǔquán.

Although China has adopted a contemporary meaning of zhǔquán derived from Western notions of sovereignty, it does not mean China accepts Western conceptions of the normative limits of sovereignty. This drastic contradiction is particularly clear when it comes to the issue of human rights as opposed to sovereignty. Discussions of human rights issues with China inevitably provoke considerations of zhǔquán. China regards zhǔquán as the precondition for any development of human rights. The Chinese government argues that without the protection of a state’s sovereignty, there can be no human rights. Defending China’s crackdown on the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Deng Xiaoping said, ‘the state’s sovereignty and security should always be put first. … Some Western countries use a cover alleging that [our] human rights or socialism are illegitimate and illegal to damage our sovereignty in reality.’ (Xīfāng de yīxiē guójiā ná shén rénquán, shénme shèhuì zhǔyì zhìdù bù hélǐ bù héfǎ děng zuò huǎngzi, shíjì shang shì yào sǔnhài wǒmen de guóquán. 西方的一些國家拿什人權、什麼社會主義制度不合理不合法等做幌子,實際上是要損害我們的國權。)[6]

As a member of the international community in the 21st century, China does not necessarily follow every trend, or demand made by the international community. Zhǔquán is often used as a shield by the Chinese government to resist against foreign pressure. For example, regarding the issue of reforming the Chinese yuan exchange rate, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao once said, ‘reforming the exchange rate of the Chinese yuan concerns China’s sovereignty. Every country absolutely has the right to choose the exchange rate system which is suitable to itself and their reasonable exchange rate standards’ (rénmínbì huìlǜ gǎigé shì zhōngguó de zhǔquán, měi gè guójiā wánquán yǒu quán xuǎnzé shìhé běnguó guóqíng de huìlǜ zhìdù hé hélǐ de huìlǜ shuǐzhǔn.人民幣匯率改革是中國的主權,每個國家完全有權選擇適合本國國情的匯率制度和合理的匯率水準。) [7] Once China makes a link between an issue and its insistence of sovereignty, it would add challenges for countries to negotiate with China. As Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB) Director General Tsai De-sheng once said, ‘on the issues of sovereignty and territory, everyone in the Chinese leadership are hawks’ (zài zhǔquán hé lǐngtǔ wèntí shàng, zhōnggòng de lǐngdǎo rén dōu shì yīngpài. 主權和領土問題上,中共的領導人都是鷹派。)[8]




[1] Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (Modern Chinese Dictionary, the 5th Edition), Beijing: Commercial Press, 2006, p. 1778. Hanyu Da Cidian (Comprehensive Dictionary of Chinese Words), Shanghai: Hanyu Da Cidian Press, 1994, Vol 1, p. 693.

[2] Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (Modern Chinese Dictionary, the 5th Edition), Beijing: Commercial Press, 2006, p. 1130. Hanyu Da Cidian (Comprehensive Dictionary of Chinese Words), Shanghai: Hanyu Da Cidian Press, 1989 (or 1997 version年版?), Vol 4, p. 1356.

[3] “Our Fundamental Position on the Hong Kong Issue,” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping (Deng Xiaoping Wenxuan), Vol. III (1982-1992), the People Press, Beijing, 1993, p. 12, [accessed March 4, 2009]

[4] Ibid, p. 12-p. 13

[5] Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu’s remarks at a regular press briefing on September 9, 2010,

[6] “The Country’s Sovereignty and Security Must Always Be Put In the First Place,” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping (Deng Xiaoping Wenxuan), Vol. III (1982-1992), the People Press, Beijing, 1993, p. 348, [accessed July 1, 2009].

[7] “Wen Jiabao: the Reform of Exchange Rate System Is China’s Sovereignty. China Does Not Yield to Pressure from the Outside,” the Xinhuanet, May 16, 2005,

[8] Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB) Director General Tsai De-sheng’s report at Foreign and Defence Committee of the Legislative Yua on October 20, 2010, ,  HYPERLINK “


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