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After some 2 million of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million residents protested China’s 2019 attempt to disassemble the rule of law in the city, the Chinese Communist Party responded by imposing the 2020 national security law that has essentially criminalized free speech.
Since it applies to anyone living anywhere on the planet, we were breaking the law just by talking about it, Sebastien Lai, Jimmy’s 28-year-old son, told me in an interview this week in London, where he’s meeting with officials he hopes will find the nerve to speak up for his father, who is a British citizen.
None of the criminal charges against 75-year-old Lai, which include a hoked-up commercial lease violation and such dangerous acts as lighting a candle at the annual vigil for those massacred in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, have achieved their only goal, which was to break him and make the rest of us forget all about him.
After all this time, Chinese officials still don’t seem to know who they’re dealing with, and by shutting him down have not stopped the world from seeing their oppression for what it is.
In December, Lai is scheduled to go on trial for sedition, for still unspecified crimes related to his journalism for the Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper he founded after Tiananmen. And when he’s convicted — not if, because 100% of those charged under the national security law are found guilty — he faces life behind bars.
To its great credit, the paper posed such a potent threat to the CCP that it was raided twice in 2021, first by 200 police officers and then by 500.
Even with its assets and Lai’s frozen, its journalists said they would keep publishing until the ink and paper ran out. On its last night in business, reporters looked out the window and saw supporters lined up around the block to buy a copy.
Sebastien Lai told me that one man interviewed while in that line was asked, “You’re still buying this? Don’t you know they just got imprisoned?” And he turns around and says, “Of course I’ll buy it. I’d buy it if it was a white piece of paper.” The Apple Daily’s last issue sold a million copies.
Mao sent publisher’s mother to a labor camp
Lai’s imprisonment is especially brazen in a city that expects its international business community to buy the lie that nothing has changed for foreigners. But his arrest came as a surprise to nobody, according to his son, his lawyers and a documentary about his extraordinary life.
And least surprised, it seems, was the man who raised himself after Mao sent his mother to a labor camp.
He escaped to Hong Kong at 12 or 13 — even he doesn’t know his exact age — in a fishing boat filled with other vomiting stowaways.
Eventually, his son says, he made a fortune in the clothing business, and then got into media after Tiananmen, and after he saw that China was not going to get any freer as it got richer.
He saw, Sebastien said, that it would get “harder and harder to tell the truth” after Margaret Thatcher’s 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the U.K. back to China.
He knew, too, that “people would self-censor and would need a publication that would hold truth to power and was also very entertaining.”
After calling the official who’d ordered the Tiananmen massacre a son of a bitch in print, China closed all of Lai’s clothing stores in Beijing. They let him know that if he didn’t apologize, they’d close him down in the entire country.
His son says he gets scared like everyone, yet realized “I could bend today, but if I do that, I’m always going to be under someone’s thumb.”
With his means and his British passport, Lai could easily have skipped town to avoid prosecution.
But again, no. “He made a very conscious decision to go back to Hong Kong and stand with his people, with the journalists and other pro-democracy activists. I wasn’t surprised that he stayed, but I’m still in awe of the fact that he did,” and that he’s been so strong in prison, where he reportedly spends much of each day in solitary confinement.
Biden administration, Ted Cruz, Nancy Pelosi all offer support
How does he manage? “He always felt a calling, and the calling wasn’t to make as much money as possible, or be the richest person in the graveyard as they say. His calling was to stand up against oppression and for democracy, and that’s why he converted” to Catholicism after the handover, to help him do that.
What’s all this got to do with us?
He reminds us what authoritarianism looks like, identical as it is on the left and the right.
What has happened couldn’t happen in Hong Kong, its residents told themselves, because what sense would it make for a successful commercial hub to destroy its own credibility as a safe place to do business?
Only, authoritarianism isn’t logical, and gains ground whenever we ignore that truth.
Sebastien said a woman in Taiwan, where he lives now, recently heard his accent in Mandarin and said, ‘You’re from Hong Kong, aren’t you? You guys thought you were better than us,’ and would be free forever. “And I turned around and said, ‘Lady, we thought we were better than everyone.’ ”
While the British have been slow to react to Lai’s predicament, Sebastien and two of his lawyers said, Americans thankfully have not, with the Biden administration and politicians as unalike as Ted Cruz and Nancy Pelosi all offering support.
So what can ordinary Americans do for Jimmy Lai?
“Spread my father’s story,” his son said. “Use my father’s story as an inspiration to write to their representatives, to call them to help my father, and to put their weight behind this man who as a 13-year-old refugee has the same values as Americans. … He went back, you know? He went back when he knew he didn’t have to, he went back because he knew not everybody could be like him and fly off to wherever.”
Not everyone is built for the daring and determination that Lai has shown, but everyone can look to him for encouragement to stand up for what’s right in our own lives.
That’s the whole point of saints. And you don’t have to be either a journalist or a person of faith to see that that’s what Jimmy Lai is.