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Home » Trial begins for Jimmy Lai, jailed Hong Kong publisher

Trial begins for Jimmy Lai, jailed Hong Kong publisher

In the 1990s, Jimmy Lai was on top of the world. He owned a large Hong Kong–based clothing chain called Giordano that had thousands of outlets and hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. He also owned a publishing company called Next that sold a popular magazine by the same name, among other titles. Then the self-made millionaire started to take shots at the Chinese government and its dictatorial practices: in 1993, for example, he published a column in which he called then-premier Li Peng “the son of a turtle’s egg,” a very derogatory phrase in Chinese. The government retaliated by shutting down Giordano stores on the mainland. Undeterred, Lai started a USA Today–style newspaper called Apple Daily, and used its pages to rail against the government’s handling of the transfer of Hong Kong back to Chinese rule in 1997.

This week Lai, now seventy-six, stands trial in Hong Kong, accused of sedition and conspiring with foreign agents to destabilize the country, among other charges. He has been in solitary confinement since 2020, when he was arrested following a raid on his newspaper’s offices. The charges he is facing, including his alleged use of Apple Daily to foment dissent against the Chinese government, carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. The Chinese government has declared Lai to be a notorious anti-China activist and “mastermind” of anti-government riots who has been “bent on destabilizing Hong Kong” for years. According to a Chinese foreign ministry official, Lai “blatantly colluded with external forces” to undermine China’s national security, and the government’s decision to hold him accountable for these acts is “beyond reproach.”

Amnesty International, however, says that Lai’s case is “an attack on press freedom and freedom of expression” and that he should be released from prison “immediately and unconditionally.” The Committee to Protect Journalists has called the trial “a travesty of justice,” and Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, said that while Jimmy Lai may be the one who is in the dock, “it is press freedom and the rule of law that are on trial in Hong Kong.” Lih Yi added that the trial was a “dark stain on Hong Kong’s rule of law and is doing a disservice to the government’s efforts to restore investor confidence.” David Cameron, the UK foreign secretary, called it a “politically motivated prosecution,” and the Wall Street Journal referred to it as the most “high-profile case of Hong Kong’s years-long effort to snuff out dissent.”

The trial is the culmination of a war of words between Lai and the Chinese authorities that has lasted for more than two decades. China experts say he used his ownership of Apple Daily to become what CNN called “an unapologetically pugilistic thorn in Beijing’s side.” His vocal position on China’s flaws helped make the newspaper one of the most popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and by 2008 Lai was a billionaire, according to a ranking by Forbes magazine. But things changed dramatically in 2019, when Hong Kong’s governor created a new national security law that for the first time allowed Beijing to extradite criminals accused of certain crimes to the Chinese mainland for punishment. Prior to that, Hong Kong maintained its own court system that was not influenced by the desires of Chinese authorities on the mainland.

The bill created four new categories of national security offenses: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, each punishable by up to life in prison. The new law, which was passed without any public notice or consultation, sparked a series of often violent demonstrations in Hong Kong that lasted for three months, and led to the arrest of thousands of demonstrators on charges of rioting and other offenses. (Elaine Yu wrote for CJR about how the new law affected Hong Kong’s independent press.) Despite the danger, Lai continued to publish critical news articles about China, and was even photographed taking part in demonstrations. He has also been accused by the government of financing some of the groups behind the protests, although he has denied being part of a US plot to destabilize Hong Kong.

As CNN noted in 2019, Lai’s supporters saw him as a brave warrior for democracy; the New York Times said that Lai was the only prominent Hong Kong businessman who “routinely denounces the Communist Party leader Xi Jinping as a ‘dictator’ and refuses to follow his fellow tycoons in paying at least token obeisance to Beijing.” His detractors, however—including those who wrote and published critical articles about him in government-backed Chinese newspapers—said that Lai and Apple Daily were a “black hand” or puppet controlled by the US. After his opposition to the authorities became more vocal, CNN reported that Lai’s home was firebombed, a rival newspaper ran an obituary falsely claiming that he had died from AIDS, and Lai became the target of an anti-corruption case (which was eventually dropped).

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As Lai continued his barrage of criticism aimed at China, friends and colleagues reportedly warned him about the risks, but he refused to tone down the rhetoric—or to leave Hong Kong. He told the Associated Press that if he did so, he would “disgrace myself [and] discredit Apple Daily and also undermine the solidarity of the democratic movement,” adding that he believed he had to “take responsibility.” In the summer of 2020, after pro-democracy protests had been under way for almost a year, Hong Kong police arrested Lai in the Apple Daily newsroom. A year later, hundreds of police officers raided the paper, declared the newsroom a crime scene, arrested editors, and confiscated computers and phones. A few days later, Apple Daily printed its final edition. Six other former Apple Daily executives have already pleaded guilty to collusion charges.

In addition to being charged with helping foreign agents destabilize Hong Kong and promoting violent demonstrations against the authorities in his newspaper, Lai was accused of a number of other offenses, including participating in and even organizing pro-democracy protests and attending a candlelight vigil for the victims of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre. He was also alleged to have breached the terms of the lease for Apple Daily’s headquarters, which the government defined as fraud. Lai was convicted on several of these charges last October, and sentenced to five years and nine months in prison, which is why he has been in solitary confinement awaiting his latest trial.

Under Hong Kong’s national security law, Lai’s case will be heard not by a jury but by a panel of three national security judges, members of a committee that has been approved by the authorities. While Hong Kong’s laws allow foreign lawyers to represent clients, the government has not allowed Lai to be represented by Timothy Owen, a British human rights lawyer. (This decision is still under appeal, a process that delayed the trial, which was supposed to begin last year.) Sebastian Lai, Jimmy’s son, says that whatever the outcome of the Hong Kong court process, he isn’t expecting his father to receive justice. He told the AP that the Hong Kong security minister “boasted of a 100 percent conviction rate,” and so he sees the likelihood of a fair trial as remote.

The younger Lai told the Journal this week that his father’s decision to remain in Hong Kong despite the risks was “proof that this intangible thing called liberty is a thing that people yearn for.” Some may call it Western values, Sebastian Lai said, “but it’s not really, in the sense that it’s not something that only people in the West want or deserve.” In 2019, Jimmy Lai told CNN that the fight between the US and China was a battle between democracy and authoritarianism, and that it was a fight for which he was willing to risk imprisonment and even death. The Chinese government has already fulfilled the first part of that vow; whether the second comes to pass remains to be seen.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.

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