Police walk past messages in support of jailed Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang (pictured R on placard) and China's first "cyber-dissident" and founder of human rights website "64 Tianwang", Huang Qi (pictured L on placard), after a protest attended by Hong Kong pro-democracy activists outside the Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong on January 29, 2019. - Prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was sentenced on January 28 to four and a half years in prison for state subversion, sealing the fate of another attorney swept up in a 2015 crackdown. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)
Jailed lawyer: messages displayed in Hong Kong in support of Wang Quanzhang (pictured right, on placard) © Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty
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The popular myth about boiling a frog — that the animal will jump out of the pot if placed in boiling water but die when plonked in cold water and gradually cooked — should be recalled by anyone involved in politics, business or the law in Asia today. In most cases, freedom and the rule of law are being eroded only gradually, but the erosion is real and the cumulative effect substantial.

Business is not exempt from this lesson. In Hong Kong and other financial centres, a surprising number of investors and entrepreneurs believe themselves protected from the depredations of authoritarian governments — and their arbitrary, extralegal decisions — on the grounds that they are purely economic players and steer clear of that terribly disruptive and inconvenient thing called “politics”. They may be right for the time being. In the long run, they are deceiving themselves.

The dangers are, of course, more immediate in authoritarian states such as China. Many observers thought President Xi Jinping would accelerate political and economic reforms and preside over a more liberal society, but he has done the opposite, concentrating power in himself and the ruling Communist party and crushing dissenters.

Lawyers have been arrested simply for doing their job and representing their clients. In January, a Chinese court sentenced human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang to four-and-a-half years in prison for “subverting state power”. He was only the latest among dozens of lawyers and legal staff to be persecuted.

Journalists, too, are routinely jailed, again for doing their job. According to Reporters Without Borders, which advocates press freedom, no fewer than 44 workers and labour rights defenders are believed to have been detained over just one dispute, that of the Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen, where employees tried to form a trade union.

In Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory of China that is not a democracy but enjoys certain freedoms and an independent legal system inherited from the British, the situation has steadily deteriorated.

My own case last year was by no means the most serious sign of erosion of the rule of law. I was denied a renewal of my work visa and then refused entry to Hong Kong because I hosted a meeting at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, addressed by Andy Chan, a young local politician who espouses independence for Hong Kong and whose party was later banned. This happened even though the meeting was legal under the guarantees of free speech and freedom of association in Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

More serious have been decisions to deny elected representatives (those who favour real democracy) their right to sit in the Hong Kong legislature, and the use of archaic colonial laws to try to criminalise views or actions that irritate Chinese leaders or their appointees in Hong Kong.

Nine peaceful democracy campaigners, including law professor Benny Tai, were found guilty last month of charges linked to “public nuisance”, including “conspiracy to commit public nuisance”, “incitement to commit public nuisance” and the curious “incitement to incite public nuisance”. Four were sentenced to jail terms of up to 16 months.

Benedict Rogers, human rights activist and chairman of UK-based non-governmental organisation Hong Kong Watch, said the convictions were “part of the Chinese regime’s campaign of ‘lawfare’ against the pro-democracy movement”. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, called such criticisms “totally unsubstantiated” and said they would harm the city’s reputation “in terms of our rule of law and the independence of the judiciary”.

Then there is Hong Kong’s proposed amendment to its extradition law, a measure that would consign purported criminals to mainland China’s opaque and arbitrary system of justice, including torture and detention without trial. Not surprisingly, business leaders, lawyers and journalists, as well as human rights groups, have criticised the plan, with two US lawmakers, James McGovern and Marco Rubio, declaring that it would “erode Hong Kong’s reputation as a centre of commerce governed by the rule of law”.

Hong Kong’s reputation, however, is already tarnished by its lame response to the abduction of booksellers and other abuses of its constitutional autonomy by Beijing since the handover from the UK in 1997. There was a deafening silence from the authorities when billionaire Xiao Jianhua was kidnapped by mainland security agents more than two years ago from the Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong. He has not been seen since.

On the mainland, meanwhile, two Canadians — a businessman and an ex-diplomat — have been detained in a transparent attempt to put pressure on Ottawa to release Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms group Huawei, who is being held in Canada in response to a US extradition request.

The reality is that abuses of freedom, transparency and the rule of law can never be fully confined to the “political” sphere.

There is not merely the problem of business people, lawyers and journalists trying to go about their daily business without risking arbitrary arrest. Economic and financial news and data, essential for bankers and industrialists, are an increasingly contested area. This is true even in a democracy such as India, but it is particularly so in authoritarian China.

As the Chinese economy slowed last year, propaganda officials ordered editors and journalists to refrain from publishing bad news about such matters as inefficient state companies and local government debt. “The economy is now political,” one editor told the FT anonymously at the time.

In too many countries — from Turkey to China, and even the US — respect for the truth and rule of law is now under sustained attack. That is why work by law firms to improve protection for journalists, whistleblowers and activists is so important — even if it turns out not to be enough.

The assault is not always alarming or visible, because our freedoms are usually eroded one small step at a time. But the frog is slowly being boiled, and soon it may be too late to jump out of the pot.

The writer is the FT Paris bureau chief, and was previously Asia editor and Asia news editor.

The table below ranks law firms and in-house legal teams for the FT Innovative Lawyers Apac awards.

Rule of Law and Access to Justice:

RankLaw firm, company or organisationDescriptionOriginalityLeadershipImpactTotal
STANDOUTNishith Desai Associates and Blueprint for Free SpeechLaws that protect journalists have not kept pace with advances in technology. Proper encryption of digital communication is a concern for anonymous sources and whistleblowers in particular. The firm analysed legal protections for journalists operating in multiple jurisdictions, information used by the charity to produce the "Perugia Principles", guidelines for journalists working with online whistleblowers. The firm has since advocated for legislative change in India to ensure digital security is considered in new laws. 98825
STANDOUTOrrickLawyers worked with the Public International Law & Policy Group and the US state department to produce a report on war crimes committed against the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine state in Myanmar. One hundred lawyers across 13 offices analysed interviews with over 1,000 Rohingya refugees to produce a report. The US House of Representatives declared that genocide had been committed by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya as a result of the report.78924
HIGHLY COMMENDEDAllens, UTS Law School and Neota LogicThe law firm partnered with Neota Logic and University of Technology Sydney law students who designed and developed applications for NGOs to solve process issues and enhance access to justice. Five teams participate each year.78823
HIGHLY COMMENDEDAshurstExpanded the Law Reform Project, with which the firm supports advocacy efforts of community legal centres. Lawyers gather case studies to highlight how laws have affected people, adding weight to the submissions. One project helped people of the "stolen generation" in Australia, Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families by Australian government agencies and church missions, to remove racial references from their birth certificates.78823
HIGHLY COMMENDEDEversheds Harry EliasHelped a Singaporean gay couple adopt a son born in the US through surrogacy. Lawyers argued that the Adoption Act did not discriminate against a gay man adopting his own biological child, and that the adoption was in the best interests of the child's welfare. This is the first time an LGBT person’s parental rights have been raised before the Singapore courts.88723
HIGHLY COMMENDEDHerbert Smith FreehillsThe firm expanded its long-running collaboration with the Salvation Army and Mission Australia, a charity providing holistic support to homeless and disadvantaged youth through legal services, social work, education and advocacy to distribute expertise to organisations across the region. 79723
HIGHLY COMMENDEDWhite & CaseTrained 45 judicial staff in Bhutan on policies and procedures required for future environmental litigation cases. The firm emphasised the preservation of culture and values, as Bhutan transitions to democracy from monarchy, a transition it has supported over the past decade, helping establish the country's first law school.79723
HIGHLY COMMENDEDAllen & OveryAdvised and prepared guides on the stop and seizure powers of officials in Hong Kong, which can be detrimental to the rights of individuals carrying stored digital information across borders. This is critical to defending freedom of movement for journalists, activists and NGO workers. The guides the firm produced cover individual rights and responsibilities as well as how to challenge seizure of materials by authorities.77822
HIGHLY COMMENDEDHogan LovellsAdvised the International Commission of Jurists, a human rights group, on a case where a civil servant applied to have his same-sex marriage to a British citizen recognised for tax assessment purposes. It is the first case of its kind to reach the court of final appeal in Hong Kong. 87722
COMMENDEDKing & Wood MallesonsThe firm teaches classes to advise community and nonprofit organisations on legal matters that help them to keep abreast of legislative and regulatory changes affecting their operations and to troubleshoot challenges. Seminar topics are selected by the nonprofits and lawyers, and the firm provides additional outreach and advice on topics not covered in class where necessary.68721
COMMENDEDMinterEllisonThe firm provides pro bono legal advice to social enterprise start-ups in Australia, providing legal assistance and connections organisations might not be able to afford. Lawyers collaborate with Social Ventures Australia, Social Traders, Westpac Foundation and Optus Future Makers, and have advised more than 20 organisations. 58821
COMMENDEDNorton Rose FulbrightHelped charity The Sacred Heart Mission expand its Journey to Social Inclusion (J2SI) programme through a new financing model that combines state funding with commercial, impact investment and philanthropic funds. The model is unique to Australia and enables the J2SI programme to break cycles of long-term homelessness through stable housing, skills training and trauma support.77721
COMMENDEDDSK LegalThe firm worked on the case of a Hindu child who had grown up with Muslim foster parents in India without a formal adoption due to religious sensitivities, establishing the child's right to stay with her foster family when her biological mother petitioned for custody after 14 years. 67720
COMMENDEDNishimura & AsahiAdvised on the structure, documentation and regulatory requirements to launch Grameen Nippon, Japan's version of Grameen Bank founded by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus. The bank will provide microfinance loans to those living below the poverty line who are considered too risky by traditional lenders.77620
COMMENDEDShearman & SterlingThe firm advised nonprofit International Rivers on the legal framework that governs the Salween River in Myanmar. The river's natural ecosystem, including more than 75 species of fish and other flora and fauna, is under threat from the proposed construction of large hydropower dams. The firm produced a report with recommendations to the state on how to protect and preserve the environment and local community rights. 77620
COMMENDEDGilbert + TobinAutomated the estate planning process for indigenous peoples and parents of children with disabilities in remote areas of Australia to deal with a higher proportion of problems, such as burial disputes. The tool has halved the time it takes for lawyers to process estate planning documents.57719
COMMENDEDLander & Rogers and Victoria Legal AidIn 2018, the Australian government further cut funding for legal representation for asylum seekers, necessitating the private sector to fill the gap. A partnership with VLA provides training to lawyers and judicial review support to asylum seekers. 67619
COMMENDEDFreshfields Bruckhaus DeringerThe firm is arguing to legalise same-sex marriage in Japan by tying it to the benefits of business and talent retention. 67518

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