Introduction to HKU Law Series (II) Professor Sweet’s Sharing

Professor Alec Stone Sweet joined the Faculty of Law at HKU as Professor, Chair of Comparative and International Law. He works in the fields of comparative and international politics, comparative and international law, international arbitration and human rights. Prior to moving to HKU, he held the Saw Swee Hock Centennial Professorship at NUS, and held chaired professorships at the Yale Law School and Nuffield College, Oxford. He has also held visiting appointments at the Columbia Law School, as well as in universities in Aix-en-Provence, Bologna, Florence, Hong Kong, Leiden, Madrid, Milan, Paris, Stockholm, Sydney, and Vienna.

We sat down with Professor Sweet as part of our Introduction to HKU Law Series to talk about life at HKU, his career as a musician, his thoughts on proportionality, his current work on the Chinese Civil Code, the expansion of the administrative state and advice for young scholars.

To watch our full interview, see the full filmed version below.


Professor Sweet told us that he was particularly drawn to HKU in large part due to the faculty’s strength in comparative constitutional law. During his previous visits, he was impressed by the fact that no other university had as many good scholars in the field of comparative constitutional law as HKU did.

When we asked Professor Sweet about his teaching, he shared with us his interest in seeing students go from receptors of knowledge to themselves becoming producers of knowledge. He regards this process as somewhat more challenging for law students as they have a difficult time breaking out of existing paradigms constructed by their professors. He calls for students to go beyond accepting the “law of the professor” as the truth and to instead regard law as a set of perspectives and arguments aimed at discovering the truth.

Professor Sweet also has a life outside of academia in which he pursues a number of endeavors at a very high level. Prior to becoming a scholar, Professor Sweet worked as a cook and had envisioned continuing to do so before his plans changed. He has also produced a number of albums that feature his adept guitar playing, evoking a deep sense of respect for the tradition he plays in. Despite his exemplary academic output, Professor Sweet regards all of his work outside of academia as being far more important to him.

So how does he maintain balance? How does he find the time?

During his time as a graduate student, he began to consciously dedicate a certain amount of time to his academic work every day in order to freely pursue his other interests. Since then, he has spent 3 – 4 hours every morning on his academic work, never taking a single holiday. During these hours, he eliminates all distractions and focuses entirely on the work in front of him. This allows him the afternoons for teaching, administration, and the pursuit of everything else outside of academia.

Professor Sweet recently released an album titled “Chasing the Moon”, featuring his arrangement of guitar tunes derived from American traditional music. He explained to us that traditional music is passed down aurally with some tunes tracing their roots back hundreds of years. The tunes are often tied to historical events or memorable places, each one telling a rich story. He explained to us that those who play American traditional music try to honor the memories and places that give birth to these tunes in every performance.

Professor Sweet gave us insight into how his position as an outsider gives him a fresh perspective in his research. Despite teaching at leading law schools across the world, Professor Sweet does not have a “traditional law degree”. As a political scientist, he is not interested in the practice of law himself but regards the work of practitioners as important for his own research. He says that practitioners within the system represent what the law is and so it is vital for political scientists to study them as political actors existing in the system. This explains why he is focused more on broader questions regarding how legal change works as opposed to specific doctrinal contentions.

We asked Professor Sweet to share with us his insight into the recent promulgation of the Chinese Civil Code which he referred to as “momentous”. He pointed us to the fact that the Chinese Civil Code bears a close resemblance to the German Civil Code and other European Civil Codes. As with other countries in the region, including South Korea and Taiwan, China has adopted the German model. Professor Sweet explained to us that other countries who had followed the German model saw their civil codes constitutionalise. In other words, civil codes that were based on the German model would eventually become “instilled with rights and rights adjudication” and form an integral part of the constitutional framework.

Indeed, the Chinese Civil Code contains several human rights provisions, mentioning environmental protection, gender equality, and dignity among others. However, the fact that the Chinese Constitution is itself nonjusticiable raises a question for Professor Sweet, namely, “how can you make the Civil Code justiciable but not the Constitution?”

He went on to say that the civil code appears to reflect a desire towards greater western-style constitutionalism, a path previously rejected by China. Will the Chinese Civil Code allow judges to engage in rights adjudication or will China “negotiate a “different way”? Professor Sweet is open to either possibility. He noted that while his scholarship in comparative constitutional law is helpful in framing the question, it by no means provides definitive answers.

When asked about research design, Professor Sweet explained to us the importance of using a variety of approaches and choosing methods that most appropriately answer a research question. He believes the best way to teach students to conduct high-quality research is by personally collaborating with them on research projects in order to expose them to the process firsthand.

He also mentioned the importance of interdisciplinary work, pointing to an insight from legal realism that “law has no intellectual content, it’s just words on paper”. As such, Professor Sweet believes that what makes law “real” is its relationship to the world outside the law. Nevertheless, he emphasizes the importance of good doctrinal analysis as a primary source of information about a legal system, a fact which he believes is far too often overlooked by those conducting interdisciplinary research.

When asked about his work on proportionality, Professor Sweet explained that several courts, including those in Hong Kong, are simply not applying proportionality despite claiming to be. He refers to proportionality as a “non-deference doctrine”, in other words, proportionality prohibits courts from deferring to political organs when conducting rights adjudication. Hong Kong courts on the other hand have built in deference to political actors as part of their proportionality analysis. Professor Sweet made it clear to us that he is not calling for reform of proportionality but rather that courts should either eschew political deference when using proportionality or reject it entirely.

We asked Professor Sweet about his thoughts on the expansion of the administrative state, especially during the pandemic era. He explained to us that in the US, executive authority has been expanding since the 1860s, with a sharp increase occurring between the 1930s – 50s. He noted that the inevitable trend towards greater administrative expansion in the future raises a question, “how do we trust the government and hold it accountable?”. For Professor Sweet, the only practical solution available is third-party dispute resolution, where parties can effectively challenge the legality of government actions. He went on to say that these court actions are also useful for governments as they provide them information about the dynamics between citizens and the administrative apparatus. This is why Professor Sweet believes that the reliance on administrative courts in China will inevitably increase.

In a message to young scholars, Professor Sweet expressed to us how arduous and grueling scholarship can be. Therefore, an interest in one’s underlying questions is vital given the enormous difficulty of the pursuit. For Professor Sweet, a career in academia is only suitable for those who have a deep passion for their chosen subject area. In his closing message, he urged young scholars to pursue their passions and to reject the conventional wisdom that demands playing “the game as its meant to be played”.

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