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.