A prominent critic of the Chinese government, outspoken activist Jimmy Lai has been arrested many times before. On Monday, however, this happened for the first time on the basis of the new security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing on June 30. The 71-year-old media tycoon could in the worst case receive life imprisonment under the new law. In addition, he could be transferred to the mainland and put in prison there.
Lai, one of Hong Kong’s most striking multi-millionaires, seems tough at first glance. When he was 12, he fled as a stowaway from South China to Hong Kong. There he found work as a child worker in a textile factory. Later he took over a bankrupt factory from his savings. He became rich in the clothing industry, and founded the Giordano clothing chain, well known in Asia.
In 1995 he started the newspaper the Apple Daily. It grew into the only major media empire in Hong Kong that has no business ties with the People’s Republic of China and can therefore operate completely independently. Lai thus spread a strong pro-democracy voice in Hong Kong.
But Lai is not really tough. One week before his arrest, this Monday, an interviewer from the Canadian television channel CBC asked him if his sister in Canada is not terribly worried about him. He shot full. “We have to move on,” he said, with a shrug.
Two hundred officers
That is precisely what is now made virtually impossible for him. About two hundred officers raided the newspaper on Monday: they were filmed looking at the papers on the desks of journalists. Apple Daily reported that Lai’s son Ian has also been arrested at home. The police raided his restaurant. Obviously, the raid on the newspaper will lead to new allegations against the editorial staff.
Lai’s arrest is therefore likely the final blow to the free press in Hong Kong. Since the promulgation of the law, China has been rapidly waltzing over Hong Kong’s democratic achievements; elections were postponed, professors fired, activists intimidated or – like prominent activist Agnes Chow on Monday – arrested.
After the uprisings in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, Lai became increasingly active in politics. He became increasingly fiercely opposed to the Chinese government. For example, he said in 1994 that former Prime Minister Li Peng, blamed by many for the bloody crackdown on the uprisings, had better drop dead. It led to an imminent closure of the Giordano branches in China. To save his business, he sold it.
It is characteristic of the way in which Lai was increasingly exposed to the fire. The fierce criticism in the official Chinese media of Lai’s positions went hand in hand with economic pressure. Companies were advised not to advertise in Lai’s media – that is, if they wanted to maintain access to the lucrative Chinese market.
Lai was unaffected by all of this, and his Apple Daily remained just as controversial. The newspaper, which had many readers, especially in the 1990s, is a tabloid aimed at a wide audience with many colorful photos and large headlines. In addition to spicy news, the magazine also brings unadulterated and fierce criticism of the political leaders in both Hong Kong and Beijing.
Lai played a prominent role in the 2014 Umbrella protests, when protesters demanded that Hong Kong’s supreme leader be elected directly by the population rather than by representatives of certain professions. He was often found among the protesters and was accused of being one of the financiers of the movement. He was arrested and released, and intimidation against him increased. For example, strangers threw incendiary bombs at his house in early 2015.
Lai had access to top leaders in the United States, where he held talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence in the summer of last year, when a new wave of protests in Hong Kong peaked. Beijing then called him a “traitor”.
Jimmy Lai had long had the chance to leave Hong Kong, but like prominent activist Joshua Wong, for example, he chose to stay. As ‘martyrs for democracy’ they are likely to generate more international support and longer-term attention than if they were to flee Hong Kong.
Also read this article about the impact of the security law on Hong Kong.