Hong Kong law firms in the line of fire


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When China imposed sanctions on the Essex court chambers in March, UK lawyers issued a warning from Guy Sandhurst QC.

“Today it is the members of the Essex Court Chambers who are sanctioned,” said the former chairman of the Bar of England and Wales. “But tomorrow it could be Clifford Chance, Freshfields or some other big city law firm or bar association that is knowingly or otherwise offending the Chinese state.”

The Essex Court was targeted after its lawyers provided legal advice to a non-governmental organization describing Beijing’s policy towards Uyghurs in Xinjiang, northwest China. But taking on cases that are seen more positively in Beijing can also prove problematic, as the international law firm Mayer Brown found out.

His experience with a case about the removal of a memorial commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen massacre from the Hong Kong University campus shows how difficult it is for multinational law firms to navigate the area.

Mayer Brown, who operates in 26 countries, agreed to represent the university’s longstanding client when she tried to remove the monument known as the “Pillar of Shame”.

That moved soon criticism by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and the US Republicans, while China’s increasing influence in the territory spread to the academic world. Ambitious academics have been fired and students have been given national security education programs.

Mayer Brown then withdrew and said she would no longer represent the university in the case. Shortly after the U-turn, Hong Kong’s former leader CY Leung called on Chinese companies to boycott the company.

Although there is no formal statement from the Chinese government supporting Leung, he still holds a formal position in China’s governance and is in regular contact with officials. Leung is vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a mainland political advisory body.

The fallout has raised questions about why Mayer Brown took the job. The company initially said it was just an extension of the real estate work it had already done for the university.

Gary Watson, a former partner of Mayer Brown, says while personally not in favor of the decision to work on the topic, “the University of Hong Kong is a long-time customer”. “I could see that they would find it very difficult [to refuse the instruction],” he says.

The University Council is also replete with influential government figures, including one who sits on an “executive council” that advises the city’s leader.

There may have been differences of opinion on such work within Mayer Brown as well. “There will be people who are for democracy and there will be people who are more likely to agree with China,” says Watson.

Two senior Hong Kong lawyers add that Mayer Brown’s Hong Kong office may have been driven by domestic considerations rather than international issues. After merging with Johnson Stokes & Master in 2007, a local company considered more established or more pro-government, it had retained greater autonomy from its parent company. One partner sits on a Chinese government body.

The situation clearly shows the increasingly difficult dilemma for companies in Hong Kong, as Beijing demands more ideological loyalty from its trade sector.

Some foreign Hong Kong companies have been encouraged to loudly support government policies that Western politicians have labeled oppressive. This includes the national security law passed on Hong Kong last year, which critics say has restricted dissent and political freedom on the territory.

In addition, China’s leader Xi Jinping recently made a push to reform the corporate sector through his “Shared Wealth” project to bring it in line with the goals of the state.

At the same time, companies in the US and Europe are facing higher expectations of a more active attitude towards social issues. Mayer Brown, for example, was a loud supporter the Black Lives Matter movement.

Antony Dapiran, a longtime Hong Kong attorney, argues, “It is possible to be a ‘good corporate citizen’ in the US or China, but not both.”

When asked about working on the Pillar of Shame, Mayer Brown said, “Our legal advice is not intended to be a commentary on current or historical events.” But for those bridging the gap between China and the West, companies should only come up with more Examination and criticism count when they disappoint one side or the other.

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