by Jerome Taylor

China’s push to ensure multinationals toe the line has seeped into the legal sphere after Beijing sanctioned a top British law office — a surprise move that resurrected concerns about the future of Hong Kong’s courts.

Beijing this week placed tit-for-tat sanctions on individuals and entities from the European Union and Britain who have taken up the cause of China’s Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang.

A verified drone shot from 2019 of Uighur prisoners being transferred by train. File photo: Weibo.

And it fired up a social media-driven boycott of Western apparel brands such as H&M, Nike and Adidas that have declined to use cotton grown in the region over widespread reports of rights abuses.

But Friday’s sanctions targeting Britain opened up a new front in China’s campaign for corporate loyalty.

Among the entities included on the latest blacklist was Essex Court Chambers, a London-based partnership of senior lawyers or barristers.

The announcement sent shockwaves through the legal community in Hong Kong, because those sanctioned are banned from doing business in, or travelling to, the finance hub.

“It lit up our phones, even lawyer friends who are not particularly political,” a Hong Kong barrister told AFP, requesting anonymity.

Hong Kong’s future

The reason the latest sanctions rattled nerves is the unique legal status the city holds — a position some fear is at risk. 

Unlike China’s party-controlled courts, Hong Kong boasts an internationally respected common law system that forms the bedrock of its business hub reputation.

Top lawyers from common law jurisdictions, including Britain, operate in the city or are instructed by companies and individuals there.

A photo taken inside the Court of Final Appeal during the Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year 2021. Photo: GovHK.

Last month, four members of Essex Court Chambers published a legal opinion that China’s actions in Xinjiang offered a “credible case” of “crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide”.

In a statement Friday, the chambers in London stressed that the four barristers had taken on the brief at the request of Uyghur rights groups, “providing independent legal advice in accordance with their professional obligations and qualifications”.

“Essex Court Chambers is not a law firm and has no collective or distinct legal identity of any kind,” it said, noting that only the four barristers were involved, not the collective at large.

In both Britain and Hong Kong, “chambers” group self-employed barristers who pool their resources for clerical work and office space. Essex boasts some 90 barristers and has a Singapore office.

But the sanctions go potentially far wider. Lawrence Collins, a former UK Supreme Court judge who currently sits on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, joined the Essex chambers’ London offices in 2012 as an arbitrator. 

Court of Final Appeal judge Lawrence Collins. Photo: Wikicommons.

Britain is currently reviewing the participation of its judges on the top Hong Kong court, a legacy of the territory’s 1997 handover to Chinese rule. 

Asked by AFP about repercussions from the sanctions for Collins himself, government officials in London said the review was still continuing. 

Representatives for the judge did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Clumsy threat’

David Anderson, a senior British barrister at a rival firm, described Essex Court Chambers staff as “some of the most distinguished international lawyers in the world”.

“Its members are all self-employed independent barristers, who will not be intimidated into silence by clumsy threats of this kind,” he told AFP. 

“By severing contact with some of the world’s top experts in international law, the Chinese regime condemns itself.”

Julian Ku, an international law expert at New York’s Hofstra University, said Beijing may not have realised how precedent-setting the inclusion of an entire international legal operation could be.

Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

“I get the feeling the UK sanctions were drawn up in haste and without much careful consideration in China, which might explain why Essex Court Chambers as a whole was sanctioned,” he told AFP.

Hong Kong and Beijing have dismissed concerns about the city’s legal hub status. 

But doubts are becoming more vocal, especially after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law that grants the mainland jurisdiction in some cases.

Chinese leaders have made clear they expect all those involved in running Hong Kong — including judges — to be “staunch patriots”. 

And the Hong Kong Bar Association has been repeatedly slammed by Chinese state media for voicing concerns over the rule of law. 

Schona Jolly, chair of the UK’s Bar Human Rights Committee, called the targeting of Essex Court Chambers “maladroit and self-defeating”.

“Such a misstep only sharpens the attention of the world on the plight of those in Xinjiang, and heightens the perception that the commitment of the Chinese state to the rule of law, including in Hong Kong, is unstable and hollow,” she told AFP.

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