Media tycoon Jimmy Lai on trial in Hong Kong


76-year-old billionaire and pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai has appeared in a Hong Kong court today. If he’s convicted on charges of collusion and sedition (as widely expected), he could face a life sentence.

Who’s Jimmy Lai?

His story is legendary among locals. He fled mainland China in 1960 at age 12, arriving in Hong Kong as a stowaway on a fishing boat. Lai then worked in a garment factory before founding hit clothing chain Giordano (similar to The Gap).

Appalled by the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, he became an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party, which responded by threatening to close his mainland stores. So Lai sold his Giordano shares and started a media venture, before eventually launching his popular Apple Daily tabloid in 1995.

Starting just before the UK returned control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the newspaper became a local hit with its mix of gossip and fearless reporting.

What allegations is he facing?

The specifics are still under wraps, but authorities are basically accusing Lai of:

  • Colluding with foreign forces, and
  • Conspiring to publish seditious material.

Lai was among the highest-profile supporters of the 2019 mass pro-democracy protests, and he met senior US figures like Vice President Pence at the time. Beijing wasn’t happy, and state media referred to him as a “traitor”.

So, shortly after China imposed its national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020, authorities detained Lai and started moving against his executives too. The paper then published its last edition on 21 June, 2021, selling out in hours.

In making their case, it seems prosecutors may point to Lai’s meetings with foreign officials plus his newspaper’s final front page, which they say called for sanctions on China.

Nobody is expecting a verdict until mid 2024 at the earliest.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

It’s hard to see this ending without a conviction and more jail time for Lai. The question is just how much more jail time, and on what basis.

In the meantime, there are a few factors that make this case really stand out. First, there’s Lai himself:

  • While many other pro-democracy figures managed to escape abroad or have pled guilty, Lai has stayed and is fighting the charges
  • He’s also one of the few Hong Kong tycoons who’s openly criticised Beijing, and
  • Lai’s company is the first Hong Kong-listed firm to be targeted under Beijing’s new national security laws.

So there’s a lot here for Hong Kongers. And second, there’s the charges:

  • The actions in question were once not only normal practice in Hong Kong, but actually won Lai several journalism awards
  • The principles in question (like freedom of expression and an independent judiciary) also helped make Hong Kong itself successful as a regional finance hub, and
  • The whole case will play further into US-China tensions, as prosecutors seemingly argue that the millions of Hong Kongers protesting in 2019 were doing Washington’s bidding, at Lai’s urging.

So there’s a lot here for the world, too.

Also worth noting:

  • Lai is already serving time for earlier convictions related to a lease violation, a Tiananmen vigil, and the 2019 extradition bill protests.
  • Beijing claims Lai was “a mastermind of the riots” and that he “blatantly colluded with external forces to undermine China’s national security“. The case has been met with criticism in the UKthe US, and the EU, as well as The Committee to Protect Journalists, and even among Catholic bishops (Lai is a Catholic convert).
  • In its annual World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders now ranks Hong Kong 140th out of 180 countries and territories, down from 18th two decades ago. China is ranked at 179th.
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