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'We’re on the right side of history' says Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai

Media mogul Jimmy Lai poses next to a copy of the Apple Daily during an interview on 1 July at his home.
Media mogul Jimmy Lai poses next to a copy of the Apple Daily during an interview on 1 July at his home. AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong entrepreneur and media mogul at the helm of an openly anti-Communist tabloid media outlet, has been in China’s crosshairs for three decades. Targeted by the new security law, he refuses to leave Hong Kong.

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Lai founded press group Next Digital in 1995 as the Hong Kong handover approached and its provocative, tabloid-style Apple Daily makes no claim to impartiality. It takes regular swipes at the Chinese Communist party (CCP) with lashings of shock photos.

The multi-millionaire is also a major donor for the pan-democracy movement and has regularly taken part in anti-government marches.

Beijing doesn’t care for the rabble-rouser. Chinese state media has slammed Lai as a “secessionist traitor” accusing him of “financing rioting” and “using Hong Kong youth as canon fodder”.

Jimmy Lai talks to RFI's Florence de Changy

On 28 February he was charged with illegal assembly for helping to organise a banned anti-government march in August 2019 and for intimidation relating to a clash with a journalist from a rival news outlet.

The 71-year old businessman is currently on bail and cannot leave Hong Kong pending his trial on 19 August.

But it’s the new national security law, introduced on 30 June, which has prompted him to give rare interviews to international media.

“The national security law spells the death knell for Hong Kong,” Lai told RFI’s correspondent Florence de Changy at his home in Hong Kong.  

“It is more draconian than the most pessimistic expectations. It supersedes our Basic Law [Hong Kong’s mini-constitution]. That means it also destroys our rule of law and freedom. And without the rule of law, people who do business here will not have protection.”

Beijing is not joking

In July 2019, Lai went to the US to personally ask the Trump administration for support, a move which could be considered “collusion with a foreign power” under the new law, although in theory it will not be applied retroactively.

The Apple Daily published a front-page letter pleading with President Trump to save Hong Kong, a move which some supporters of the territory's pro-democracy movement found counterproductive, playing into Trump’s Cold War rhetoric.

Hong Kong’s financial centre is fourth biggest in the world and Lai admits Beijing has “no good reason to destroy it”, and yet he believes they will.

“In the financial centre you need to have mutual trust, but without the rule of law, there is no mutual trust.”

Even if Chinese money continues to flow to compensate for the lack of US investment, the business community can feel Beijing is taking things to a new level.

“Business people are making money here, and they’re reluctant to leave a place that is making money.  But this time, it is very different. They understand how serious the situation is and how the Chinese Communist Party is actually acting in a very draconian way in clamping down on this place. They know [Beijing] is no longer joking.”

Lai’s fortune is estimated at around $1.2 billion but his own business has taken a hit too.

In a recent video he pleaded for help in shoring up his flagship newspaper as coronavirus and political retaliation sapped advertising revenue.

Shrinking democracy movement

As Beijing uses the new security law to further clamp down on opposition, Australia and the United Kingdom have eased visa requirements to make it easier for Hong Kong residents to go there. Some, like young activist Nathan Law, have moved to the UK.

Lai admitted the younger generation had taken the heaviest toll.

“Young people got really scared. You can’t blame them, they have all their lives ahead of them. Some of the leaders have left, or are thinking about leaving. And some of them, even if they stay, are stepping away from the movement. They say, ‘Enough is enough. I’m not going to take more risk'. Nobody can blame them, no one can ask anybody to be a martyr.”

As a result the pan-democratic movement is shrinking.

30 years as a trouble-maker

Lai has had his fair share of intimidation over the years.

During the so-called Umbrella protest movement in 2014, Lai had rotten meat thrown at him.

In January 2015, his home and office were hit by petrol bombs.

Rival newspapers reported he had AIDS and the pro-Beijing South China Morning Post claimed his large donations to the pro-democracy movement were proof of corruption. Lai denied wrongdoing and the case against him was finally dropped.

“People have told me, ‘You will be arrested and put in jail for life in China or you will be shot'. It was done to frighten me,” he said.

But he refuses to leave Hong Kong.

“If I leave I disgrace myself, I discredit Apple Daily and I undermine the solidarity of the pan-democratic movement,” he said. “I cannot leave because for 30 years I’ve been one of the trouble makers and then when trouble really comes…I leave? I cannot do that.”

The right side of history

Despite a shrinking pro-democracy movement, Lai said they have to cling on.

“Those who stay will have to uphold the integrity of the movement and be the backbone of the social conscience. We hold onto it because we know we are on the right side of history and we’re doing the right thing.

"Even if we fail today, people will come up to replace us eventually, we will win. This is the only hope we have.”

 

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