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The ballad of Jimmy Lai is the anthem of Hong Kong’s demise

FILE - Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded local newspaper Apple Daily, is about to wear a face mask before entering a court in Hong Kong on May 5, 2020. A Hong Kong court on Friday, May 19, 2023 dismissed the jailed pro-democracy publisher's legal bid in his fight to use a British lawyer in his landmark national security trial. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)
FILE – Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded local newspaper Apple Daily, is about to wear a face mask before entering a court in Hong Kong on May 5, 2020. A Hong Kong court on Friday, May 19, 2023 dismissed the jailed pro-democracy publisher’s legal bid in his fight to use a British lawyer in his landmark national security trial. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

The first time I met Hong Kong businessman Jimmy Lai in the early 2000s, I really didn’t know much about him. I knew his newspaper, Apple Daily, was one of the key players in the Hong Kong market, and that he was a wealthy man. 

He greeted me in a chaotic newsroom and made time for a young journalist. I had lots of questions for him, but I remember being struck by his interest in my point of view, despite my age and inexperience.

I would go on to meet Lai probably a half dozen times on trips to Hong Kong and during a brief stint living there. It wasn’t long before I put together the legend of this humble but extraordinary man.

Born to a wealthy family that was destroyed by the upheaval of post-war China, as a young boy, Lai lived on the streets before stowing away on a ship to escape the mainland for Hong Kong. He scraped his way up the ladder, eventually starting a textile company that turned into the successful clothing chain Giordano. Along the way, Lai realized the unique opportunity that the freedom of Hong Kong gave him and became a passionate advocate for Chinese democracy. As a part of that dedication to truth and free speech, he founded Apple Daily.

Apple Daily was a unique newspaper. The paper blended serious investigative reporting and opinion commentary with lurid tabloid-style stories and photos. It was a huge hit in bustling Hong Kong, before being shut down by the Communist Party following accusations that certain stories violated China’s national security law.

The Acton Institute’s new documentary “The Hong Konger” shines a light on Lai’s story and Hong Kong’s sad demise. The struggle for Hong Kong’s freedom was in its early stages when I started spending time there, with the handover from the British to the Chinese taking place less than a decade before. Lai talked to me about the rising self-censorship of the media he saw taking place and business interests cozying up to the Chinese Communist Party. He saw the current crisis brewing.

Prior to my time in Asia, I had lived in Eastern Europe and had the good fortune of meeting dissidents like former Czech Republic President Vàclav Havel and Polish historian Adam Michnik. Little did I know when I was meeting with Lai that I was sitting with another great moral leader, even if the world has yet to fully acknowledge it.

The moving documentary about Lai shows his big heart and moral convictions in action as he implores his fellow Hong Kongers not to succumb to violence against the steady encroachments of Beijing’s totalitarian reach, urging them to maintain the moral authority that peaceful protest provides them.

The movie takes the watcher through the circumstances that have led to Lai’s imprisonment by Chinese authorities under its draconian national security law. In a perfect example of China’s insidious reach, Tik Tok recently banned links to the movie on its platform. After public outrage, the social media company said it had restored access to those links and that the ban had been a mistake. That said, it’s a real curiosity how Tik Tok seems to consistently ban links to websites critical of China by mistake.

The tragedy of Jimmy Lai is the tragedy of Hong Kong, a special city that is being rapidly reshaped in the mainland’s authoritarian image. While it’s hard to speak of Hong Kong being born in freedom because it was a colonial outpost of the British, its cosmopolitan mix of different nationalities and business-first focus gave it a degree of free expression that was unique in the Chinese-speaking world. The Basic Law that it operated under after the handover from the British was supposed to preserve the central tenets of a free society for 50 years, or as one commentator in the movie noted, until China caught up.

But China hasn’t caught up, rather it has stepped backward. Hong Kong has been pulled back into the Chinese Communist Party’s maw — essentially tearing up the treaty of the handover — because a free Chinese society on China’s doorstep is, in itself, a threat to the Communist Party (a main reason why Taiwan is also imperiled). Predictably, businesses are rethinking their footprints in this previously essential city because China’s broad national security law can accuse nearly anyone of sedition and drag them to the mainland and its opaque legal system.

It hadn’t occurred to me until I watched the movie and heard many of its commentators say that they could no longer go to Hong Kong because of this very threat that it would also be dangerous for me to go back there. While I’m far from an important critic of China, I have certainly written many things that would expose me to sedition charges under China’s expansive law. I love Hong Kong and that realization left me gripped with sadness.

As the world watches China pivot to a much more aggressive posture than its recent past, we are watching the slow death of a once great city. The gradual strangulation of this vibrant metropolis is just another example of how China’s growing menace is reshaping the world. Taiwan and a world-changing potential war lurk near Hong Kong’s humid coast; the South China Sea has sprouted Chinese military bases on tiny atolls, despite international court rulings deeming them illegal; surrounding countries are shifting their defense policies, with the Philippines getting closer to the U.S. and Japan rethinking its pacifist defense policies, for example.

Throughout these seismic changes, the Mandela of China languishes in jail and the world is not paying enough attention. An individual of moral authority like Jimmy Lai can light a thousand torches in the darkness of dictatorship and the free world (especially the United Kingdom, where Lai holds citizenship) should be doing more to lift him up and demand his release. 

I’m haunted by one of his closing statements in the movie: “A China that does not respect the rights of people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.”

Jeremy Hurewitz is a policy advisor on national security at The Joseph Rainey Center, the head of Interfor Academy and the creator of Sell Like a Spy.

Editor’s note: This piece was updated on May 22 at 9:58 a.m.

Tags Hong Kong independence Hong Kong national security law Hong Kong–Mainland China conflict Jimmy Lai Politics of the United States US-China relations

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