Jimmy Lai: Hong Kong's rebel mogul and pro-democracy voice

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Jimmy Lai - image from May 2020
Jimmy Lai was sentenced in April 2021 to a year in prison

The billionaire media mogul Jimmy Lai is one of the most prominent supporters of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. He has been a persistent thorn in China's side, and is now in prison serving a year's sentence for his involvement in protests in the territory.

Mr Lai was 12 years old when he fled his village in mainland China, arriving in Hong Kong as a stowaway on a fishing boat. Like a number of the city’s famed tycoons, he went from a menial role, toiling in a Hong Kong sweatshop, to founding a multi-million dollar empire.

But unlike others who rose to the top in Hong Kong, Mr Lai also became one of the fiercest critics of the Chinese state and a leading figure advocating democracy in the former British territory. As a result, he has faced a string of cases in recent years and was eventually been sentenced to a prison term on a charge of "unauthorised assembly".

He is still the most prominent person charged under Hong Kong's controversial new national security law, which can carry a life sentence.

“I’m a born rebel," he told the BBC in an interview late last year, hours before he was charged. "I have a very rebellious character."

Rags to riches

Jimmy Lai was born in Guangzhou, a city in southern China, to a wealthy family that lost everything when the communists took power in 1949. From working odd jobs and knitting in a small clothing shop he taught himself English, eventually founding the international clothing brand Giordano.

The chain was a huge success. But when in 1989 China sent in tanks to crush pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Mr Lai began a new journey as a vocal democracy activist as well as an entrepreneur.

He started writing columns criticising the massacre that followed the demonstrations in Beijing and established a publishing house that went on to become one of Hong Kong's most influential.

As China responded by threatening to shut his stores on the mainland, leading him to sell the company, Mr Lai launched a string of popular pro-democracy titles that now include Next, a digital magazine, and the widely read Apple Daily newspaper.

In a local media landscape increasingly fearful of Beijing, Mr Lai has been a persistent critic of China's authorities both through his publications and writing. This has seen him become a hero for many residents in Hong Kong but on the mainland he is viewed as a “traitor” who threatens Chinese national security.

In recent years, masked attackers have firebombed Mr Lai’s house and company headquarters. The 73-year-old has also been the target of an assassination plot.

But none of the threats has stopped him from airing his views robustly. He has been a prominent part of the city’s pro-democracy demonstrations and had already been arrested twice this year on illegal assembly charges for earlier protests before his detention earlier this month.

Jimmy Lai being detained by the national security unit
Jimmy Lai was detained by Hong Kong's newly set-up national security unit

When China passed Hong Kong's new national security law in June, Mr Lai told the BBC it spelt the "death knell" for the territory. The influential entrepreneur also warned that Hong Kong would become as corrupt as China. Without the rule of law, he said, its coveted status as a global financial hub would be "totally destroyed".

For his admirers Mr Lai is a man of courage who has taken on great risks to defend the freedoms of Hong Kong.

"I have enormous respect for Mr. Lai. Clearly a man with courage and probably among the very very few who has maintained his business interests without diluting his principles," wrote one Twitter user after his arrest.

The media mogul is known for his frankness and acts of flamboyance. Earlier this year he had urged US President Donald Trump to help the territory, saying he was "the only one who can save us" from China. His newspaper, Apple Daily, published a front-page letter that finished: "Mr President, please help us."

When his sentence was read out in court in April, he was calm. The judge said, "Actions have consequences for everyone irrespective of who they are." Outside the courtroom, pro-democracy protesters chanted.