Jimmy Lai took to the streets for democracy, calling China’s President Xi a dictator. Now the Hong Kong media mogul has been arrested.
Jimmy Lai during a July 1 interview Photo by Vincent Yu/ap
Most business tycoons in the financial capital remained mute to the growing grip of China’s authoritarian regime. The fear of economic retaliation was too great. Jimmy Lai, on the other hand, always spoke things as they are: He called Xi Jinping a dictator, he supported Hong Kong’s protest movement with full passion. What’s more, he regularly took to the streets in the front row with the black-clad activists, who by age could be his grandchildren.
Now the media mogul has been arrested, along with two of his sons and several employees of his newspaper, Apple Daily. He is accused of alleged conspiracy with foreign powers – a criminal offense based on the controversial security law Beijing forced on Hong Kong’s people in July. Dystopian photos of the raid on Lai’s office have appeared on Twitter: A hundred uniformed police officers storm the premises.
Amnesty International sees Lai’s arrest as an attack on press freedom: "The authorities’ charges – so far without explanation – illustrate how the vague national security law can be used to persecute people with different political views," says Asia-Pacific director Nicholas Bequelin.
By China’s state media, Jimmy Lai has already been made fun of for years – as an alleged agent of the CIA, for example. They have posted a photographer outside his Hong Kong villa around the clock to uncover possible contacts. The fact that Beijing’s propaganda organs are devoting so much attention to the 71-year-old speaks for his importance as a leading figure in the pro-democracy camp.
Born in Guangdong in southern China, Lai fled on a boat from the Communists to Hong Kong at the age of twelve. There he worked his way up as a worker in a textile factory, eventually founding the successful fashion company Giordano. But even then, his political ambitions got in the way of business: after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, when Beijing’s army bloodily put down the student movement, Jimmy Lai kept writing critical essays. The Communist Party began closing Giordano headquarters on the mainland.
Jimmy Lai, media entrepreneur
"I’m prepared for prison"
Lai sold the company and invested in the media business. He transformed his daily newspaper, Apple Daily, from a rag with advertisements for prostitutes into a tabloid-style political journal. He openly promotes the protest movement there – much to the annoyance of the Communist Party of Beijing. The Communist Party has long since exerted pressure to ensure that no Hong Kong company places advertisements with the paper, which costs more than $40 million a year in losses. Nevertheless, Apple Daily is the paper with the second largest circulation.
The opposite of an intellectual
Jimmy Lai is the opposite of an intellectual; he’s more of a pragmatic go-getter who would probably also be successful in the pork industry or as a real estate speculator. But despite his entrepreneurialism, he never hides his opinions: he called Beijing’s national security law a "death blow to Hong Kong." In June, he told the AFP news agency that he was "prepared for prison." He had already been briefly arrested several times before.
In the course of Lai’s arrest, the editorial offices of his publishing house Next Media were also searched. The news of Jimmy Lai’s arrest almost went unnoticed on the heavily censored Chinese web. On Weibo, a Chinese version of Facebook, one comment in particular by Hong Kong film director Wong Jing was shared euphorically: "Finally, we can use the new security law to punish such traitors as Jimmy Lai."
Almost all comments are negative in nature: he is called an "asshole" by Chinese users or a "separatist." Yet Jimmy Lai sees himself as Chinese through and through. Unlike the younger generation of protesters, he still feels a strong interest in the culture of his home country. Now he is facing "life imprisonment.