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Pillar of Shame row serves another wakeup call for global businesses


This is translated from CitizenNews' weekly digest tracking Hong Kong's political news over the past week. (一周政情:國殤之柱移除起風波 專業機構無計保中立

University of Hong Kong has attempted to remove the Pillar of Shame, which has been in campus for 24 years to commemorate victims of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. The creator, Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt has opposed the move, and later asked for several months to arrange the piece to be shipped out of Hong Kong.

International law firm Mayer Brown, which came under fire for originally representing the university on the matter, has later dropped out to avoid more criticisms. Reportedly the firm’s decision has been elevated to its global management committee, which includes partners from the US and the UK. The move has angered former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who has called on Chinese state-owned institutes and companies to boycott Mayer Brown. This has highlighted it was challenging for professionals to stay away from politics and maintain neutrality.

Mayer Brown is a well-established and one of the oldest law firms in Hong Kong. Hong Kong government, public bodies and many local Chinese corporations have been its clients. Several partners have served as the presidents of the Law Society of Hong Kong. It has generally been on good term with the pro-Beijing camp. The firm’s decision to distance itself from the Pillar of Shame, which has been a thorn to Beijing, has caught many pro-Beijing figures by surprise.

Hong Kong law firms have merged with or acquired by other firms in common law jurisdictions to become international law firms. Mayer Brown for instance composed of four entities from the US, UK, Hong Kong and Brazil, while representatives from each office sit on its board, chaired by chairman from the US office. During the honeymoon period between China and the West, these firms services for cross-border solutions were well received by the market. Yet when the China’s relations with the West turn sour, multinational firms find themselves easily caught in political turmoil. The Pillar of Shame saga is not an isolated incident, but reflected multinational financial, legal and accounting firms being forced to pick sides in the wake of the decoupling of the two largest economies in the world.

In the current controversy, Mayer Brown has tried to downplay the political implications by first saying the firm was “asked to provide a specific service on a real estate matter” for HKU, framing it was a property dispute despite little success. In hindsight, both HKU and Mayer Brown have clearly underestimated the difficulty of removing the sculpture. They may have perceived the student union and the now disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, who have arranged the sculpture placed in campus since 1997, were too weak to put up a fight under the National Security Law.

What the university and the Mayer Brown lawyers did not anticipate is a very outspoken creator with strong international influence, and the elected parliament of his country was not afraid to anger China by standing behind Galschiøt. Galschiøt's strategy was witty, stating from the outset that the sculpture neither belong to Hong Kong Alliance or the student union. Instead, he has loaned the sculpture since 1997 and he claimed to be the rightful owner of the artwork. This has turned the table against the university, which would have to deal with the owner’s legitimate rights. His appeal to HKU to allow reasonable time to ship the sculpture, instead of a prolonged display, is somewhat sound in terms of the law, reason, and compassion. After all, the University have allowed the sculpture in campus for 24 years. Even if the sculpture is no longer allowed to be displayed, it would be reasonable to allow a few months to remove it and display it elsewhere.

The "Pillar of Shame" statue, a memorial for those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, is displayed at the University of Hong Kong, Oct. 13, 2021. AP Photo
 

The University however for unreason unspecified, is eager to remove the sculpture soon, and has taken a tough stance, saying that if the other party does not remove it within a specified time frame, the University will remove it itself and will not be held responsible for any damage. This however has played right into Galschiøt's hands. Galschiøt told the press that his greatest wish was to use the sculpture to raise the public’s awareness of the Tian’anmen Incident. The University's decision has instead raised more awareness globally and attracted over 100 media reports. He has also called upon the people of the Hong Kong to collect the pieces of the sculpture to preserve the Tiananmen memory forever, if HKU brutally destroy it. Galschiøt's clever tactic has thrown the University in a tough position. Mayer Brown, who sent a letter to the Alliance, has became the target of media criticism globally that a mainstream elitist law firm has disgracefully helped with undermining the freedom of speech and artistic expression.

However, expect Beijing’s loyalists to retaliate after international pressure succeeded to force Mayer Brown’s global partners to intervene in Hong Kong office’s decision. Even if it was not Leung Chun-ying to call for a boycott against the firm, the Liaison Office also would not go easy on Mayer Brown’s senior partners in Hong Kong. The influence of US partners may face pressure to change, or local partners may be forced to leave the firm to start their own businesses. Otherwise, Chinese businesses or companies may be hesitate to hire the firm.

Mayer Brown’s dilemma is precisely yet another wakeup call for multinational professionals to operate in Hong Kong, that is caught in political conflicts between the East and the West.


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