Tuesday marked the 1,000th day that Hong Kong businessman, journalist and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai has spent in solitary confinement for a series of bogus charges that Beijing has manufactured to silence him. It’s an occasion that, after speaking with his son in London this month, I very much want to call attention to.
Lai, 75, is the sort of person Americans typically celebrate. He is self-made in every sense, beginning with his escape from Maoist China at age 12 as a stowaway on a fishing boat to Hong Kong. Once there, he lived and worked in a garment factory, all the while experiencing freedom – and food – as he’d never known it. Eventually, he had his own garment factory and, later, founded the retail fashion brand Giordano, which made him a billionaire.
At some point, Lai found being just a businessman to be “boring” and turned his sights to journalism – and protest – to give his life meaning. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, he founded Apple Daily, one of the most popular Chinese-language newspapers in Hong Kong. The newspaper’s name refers to the infamous fruit partaken by Eve in the Garden of Eden. Knowledge is crucial to freedom, and Lai’s symbolism has proved prophetic.
In raids in 2020 and 2021, hundreds of police descended on Apple Daily, confiscating files and computers and arresting several senior executives. The government froze the company’s assets as well as those of Lai. The newspaper staff heroically continued to publish and vowed to continue until the last drop of ink was spent and the lights went out. The paper was shuttered in June 2021.
This history, well known to many around the globe, was repeated to me recently by Lai’s son Sebastien, who has fearlessly traveled the world to tell his father’s story and urge foreign leaders to pressure China for his release. Although Lai is a British citizen, Britain and other Western countries have done little to win his release. Too much Western money is invested in China- – and China owns too much of America – for leaders to object too strenuously to Lai’s imprisonment. Or so we must assume.
Through several arrests on trumped-up charges, Lai has never let go his commitment to freedom, even as he was handcuffed, chained and perp-walked through his own newspaper offices. His purported crimes include peaceful participation in pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020. He was also convicted of organizing and attending the Aug. 18, 2019, demonstration in Victoria Park – which was attended by about 1.7 million other people. Another conviction followed his participation in the June 4, 2020, vigil for the victims of Tiananmen Square. Lai lit a candle and was sentenced to 13 months in prison.
In another supposed offense, Lai was prosecuted for fraud for his alleged breach of the terms of his lease for Apple Daily’s headquarters. He was convicted in October and given five years and nine months in prison, the sentence he is serving. Meanwhile, he awaits trial on sedition and foreign collusion under the relatively recent national security law, which essentially criminalizes any criticism of the government. This goes for protests, which may be considered acts of sedition or worse, and theoretically applies to anyone anywhere.
Technically, this column is an act of sedition, which means I won’t be visiting Hong Kong or China.
If convicted, Lai faces a life sentence.
This nightmare of harassment and persecution, unimaginable to most Americans, is how China manages its critics. For standing for truth, Lai could become a modern-day martyr. Unless, that is, the United States and the United Kingdom step up. What are the chances?
Lai’s family hasn’t seen him in three years. Sebastien told me the only glimpse he’s had of his father has been in a video China released showing him walking in the prison yard.
“He looked pretty good, considering,” Sebastien said. “But at 75, he could die any day.”
One of the attorneys on Lai’s international defense team who joined our conversation neatly summed things up: “The U.S. simply cannot trade with China as long as China is abusing human rights.”
That would be tricky, I noted. Yet his point cannot be ignored. How much are we willing to give up to free this champion of democracy from injustice and rescue Hong Kong from China’s stranglehold? Lai himself suggested one answer when he refused his chance to leave Hong Kong.
“When I take a stand,” he has said, “I stand.”
When I asked Sebastien what would be most helpful, his reply was simple: “Media attention is all that’s keeping my father alive.”
Reach Kathleen Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org.