Friday, October 23, 2020

Jimmy Lai: “Hong Kong Will Eventually Be Like China, Plagued by Corruption”

From the University of Chicago's ProMarket:

In an interview with ProMarket, Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai discussed his legal troubles, the roots of his political activism, and the negative impact that he believes Hong Kong’s new national security law has already had on the life of Hong Kongers. 

Editor’s note: This article is part of our ongoing debate on the impact of China’s new national security law on the freedom of expression in Hong Kong and everywhere in the world. Read previous articles in this series here.

Earlier this month, Hong Kong police raided the private offices of Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon and one of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists. The raid took place two months after Lai himself was arrested in August, along with his two sons and several other activists and executives from his media company, Next Digital, for allegedly violating Hong Kong’s new national security law.

Lai’s arrest caused a global uproar, with images of him arrested in his home and led away in handcuffs by police officers plastered across news outlets worldwide. The arrest was seen as “an extraordinary show of force,” with 200 officers raiding the newsroom of Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper Lai founded in 1995. (Lai was released on bail two days later).

Lai, who was born in the Chinese city of Guangzhou and was smuggled into Hong Kong on a fishing boat when he was 12, was a clothing mogul before venturing into the media business. Inspired by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, he has become one of the leading figures in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement over the last three decades and a fierce critic of Beijing. He regularly meets with senior American officials and his political activism has made him a frequent target of Beijing (The CCP’s English-language newspaper, Global Times, called him a “force of evil”), subject to arrests, threats, and other sanctions

Earlier this year, the Stigler Center and ProMarket launched an article and webinar series to facilitate conversations among leading scholars and experts about the implications of Hong Kong’s national security law for US-China relations and for the freedom of expression, both in Hong Kong and worldwide. Ahead of his Stigler Center webinar, we recently interviewed Lai about the recent developments in Hong Kong and his views on the new national security law. In his ProMarket interview (which took place before the most recent raid on his offices), Lai discussed his legal troubles, the roots of his political activism, and the negative impact that he believes the new law has already had on Hong Kongers’ lives. 

[The following conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.]

Q: Let’s begin with your current legal situation. You were recently cleared of a criminal intimidation charge related to an incident in 2017 with a photographer, and that’s under appeal. You were arrested in August in relation to the new national security law and are now out on bail. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but you may face several charges related to last year’s protests as well, right?

Right. I got three charges and one recent allegation—it’s not a charge yet—of deception, where I used my media premises as the correspondence address for other companies. The second is sedition, which is under the common law. The third is collusion with a foreign power, which is under the national security law, but they haven’t charged me yet.

I extended my bail two weeks ago, and I will have to go to the police station again on December 1st. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Q: So you are currently awaiting charges?


Q: You called your arrest last month a “symbolic exercise.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

When I was arrested, our media building was also raided by about 200 police. The whole exercise is to intimidate the media companies in Hong Kong to make sure that nobody dares to deviate from what the government wants.

My arrest is also, in a way, an intimidation of the people of the resistance movement. That’s my speculation, but that’s how the city and the people reacted to my arrest and to the raid of my media company.

Q: The national security law went into effect almost four months ago. How would you say daily life in Hong Kong has been affected by it?

The national security law has been very effective [in] intimidating the whole city. Many of the people involved with the movement have left or are trying to leave. Many of them side-step it. Those who are still staying and resisting are almost the backbone of the movement.

People are panicked. If you checked the big data, the [top] topic on Google search and social media is immigration. The national security law’s clampdown on us has been very successful....