Solving the problem of brutal authoritarian regimes is not a simple subject. There are folks out there that feel nothing but consistent and thorough shunning of a government is the only way to stand up to its abuses. These are the folks who wanted the boycott the Olympics in China. There are others who see cautious engagement as the long-term best hope as economic interdependence and cultural soft power combine to embolden reformers. These are the folks who wanted to go forward with the Olympics in China. It’s the old Vulcan proverb: only Nixon could go to China.
The relative merits of these competing approaches requires a lot more time and nuance than we have on a Friday afternoon, but I think everyone can agree that — to the extent business engagement is truly a positive — showing up at an event to commemorate A SPECIFIC CRACKDOWN is over whatever line you’re personally choosing to draw.
Davis Polk’s Asia Chair, Martin Rogers, recently announced that he’s planning to speak at an event next week called the “National Security Law Legal Forum.” That’s the Hong Kong law designed to give the government greater power to crackdown on even the whiff of protest. It runs hand in hand with a law that makes it easier to extradite Hong Kong dissidents to the mainland where Western eyes have a harder time monitoring the justice system.
For the record, the “Department of Justice” in this post is the Hong Kong Department of Justice headed by Teresa Cheng, who is — *checks notes* — under U.S. sanctions. Hanging out with foreign officials under official sanctions is not generally considered a positive public relations move for a business.
Unless it’s FIFA or something.
This mirrors the argument people made against U.S. participation in the Olympics: does it provide legitimacy? Which of course it does, but some degree of legitimizing is inevitable barring complete isolation. Davis Polk — and other firms — continuing to do business in China affords the regime legitimacy too, but a general sense of legitimacy tempered by faith that deeper ties will be rewarded with reform over time.
But showing up an event ABOUT the government’s crackdown legislation conveys a very specific sense of legitimacy about that crackdown. That’s when we cross the line into participating in propagandizing.
Law firms are, to some extent, fiefdoms and Davis Polk is a big one, so Rogers doesn’t necessarily carry the imprimatur of the firm here. On the other hand…
So maybe the firm should’ve seen this coming.
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.