Mayer Brown is facing calls for a boycott of its services in China after the US law firm pulled out of helping a local university remove a memorial to the Tiananmen Square massacre from its campus.
The attack from CY Leung, Hong Kong’s former chief executive, illustrated the conflicting pressures western businesses face in China, where Beijing demands their support for its repressive policies but doing so earns the opprobrium of western governments.
The Chicago-founded law firm has come under heavy criticism from US lawmakers over its role in representing the University of Hong Kong, which this month ordered the removal of the 8m-tall “Pillar of Shame” by Danish artist Jens Galschiot. The sculpture, which was erected in 1997, is the only commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in China.
But Beijing’s introduction of a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong last year has crushed most public displays of dissent, including at universities, which authorities blamed for nurturing political radicalism during the city’s 2019 anti-government protests.
Leung, who is also vice-chair of the national committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a mainland political advisory body, accused Mayer Brown of bowing to US political pressure after it announced it would no longer represent the university in the matter.
“I am calling for a China-wide boycott of Mayer Brown. The firm owes Hong Kong a full account of its decision to cease to act for Hong Kong university, and of the foreign interventions leading to that decision,” Leung told the Financial Times on Sunday.
“No client in Hong Kong or mainland China, particularly those with Chinese government connections, will find Mayer Brown dependable.”
CY Leung, a nationalist firebrand, held Hong Kong’s top position from 2012 to 2017 © Bloomberg
The law firm sent a letter this month on behalf of the university to a Hong Kong organisation that had previously organised the city’s annual Tiananmen vigil and was deemed responsible for the sculpture. The group disbanded last month after its leadership was detained under security law charges.
Mayer Brown’s letter demanded that the Pillar of Shame be removed by October 13.
In response, 28 civil society groups signed an open letter calling for Mayer Brown to withdraw from representing the university, citing the importance of safeguarding the firm’s “integrity in defending the right of freedom of expression”. Republican senators including Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham also condemned the firm.
Mayer Brown, which merged with local firm Johnson Stokes & Master in 2008, initially defended its representation of the university, saying the dispute was simply a real estate matter.
But on Friday the firm backed down, saying: “Going forward, Mayer Brown will not be representing its longtime client in this matter.”
The FT has contacted Mayer Brown with a request for comment.
The sculpture’s removal has been delayed as Galschiot, who claimed ownership, sought legal representation in Hong Kong.
Beijing has increasingly demanded companies vocally support its policies in Hong Kong. Local conglomerates and foreign banks publicly backed the security law when it was introduced in June 2020.
Last week, LinkedIn announced it would close its main service in China, where it had 54m users.
Some academics have also told the FT that self-censorship has increased under the threat of the security law, with many fearing being reported to the authorities or targeted by pro-Beijing media and then facing legal and professional consequences.
Teachers said the expected removal of the Pillar of Shame was another sign that academic freedom was being undermined.
“Academics are fearful,” one professor said. “Some are afraid of saying things in class that they might otherwise say because they might be taken out of context.”