Updated: January 23, 2023 11:43 AM GMT
Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai (center) is led to a police van as he heads to court to be charged under the territory's controversial new national security law on Dec. 12, 2020. (Photo: AFP)
The Lunar New Year, which began on Jan. 22, is traditionally a time for families to come together, share meals, visit relatives and take time off work. As people across China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and many other parts of Asia and the world celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, many will have traveled long distances to reunite with their families.
But as this festival gets underway, let us remember those who cannot be with their loved ones — in particular, those in prison for their political or religious beliefs. And let us especially think of one prominent Catholic, the 75-year-old Hong Kong entrepreneur, publisher and pro-democracy campaigner, Jimmy Lai, who is spending his third Lunar New Year behind bars.
In December 2020, Lai was jailed, awaiting trial on multiple charges. He was briefly released on bail and was able to spend Christmas that year with his family, albeit under a form of house arrest, but on Dec. 31, 2020, his bail was reversed and he has been in prison ever since.
Late last year, on Dec. 10 — which is Human Rights Day — Lai was sentenced to almost six years’ imprisonment, on totally trumped-up fraud charges. He has already served two other sentences, one of 13 months for lighting a candle and saying a prayer at a vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and another of 14 months for participating in a peaceful protest in 2019.
"If convicted, Lai may end up spending the rest of his life in jail"
But even worse is to come. His biggest trial — under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law — begins in September this year, having been postponed from last year due to a wrangle over his choice of defense counsel. His chosen lawyer, British barrister Tim Owen, KC, was rejected by the Hong Kong government and his work permit was temporarily suspended, even though Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal had approved him.
Beijing has now given Hong Kong’s chief executive carte blanche to determine not only who the judge is in a National Security Law trial, but also who the defendant’s legal representative will be.
If convicted, Lai may end up spending the rest of his life in jail. The minimum sentence for the accusations he faces is at least ten years, but they could carry a life sentence. The Chinese Communist Party regime in Beijing and their quislings in Hong Kong appear determined to keep him locked up for a long time.
Why? For speaking truth to power.
Lai has been one of Hong Kong’s most prominent, outspoken and courageous critics of Beijing for the past three decades. He founded the hugely successful Apple Daily newspaper, which proved fearless in advocating for freedom and human rights and challenging the regime. It became the largest pro-democracy, Chinese-language, mass-circulation daily newspaper until it was forcibly shut down by the regime in June 2021. And for this, Beijing wants to make an example of him, to further intensify a climate of fear. If they can jail an internationally renowned and extremely well-connected businessman, they can do anything to anyone.
Lai came to Hong Kong when he was just 12 years old, escaping China as a stowaway in a boat from Hong Kong. He left the terror and mass starvation created by Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” in search of a better life.
Starting out as a child laborer in a garment factory, he was promoted to factory manager, and then established his own business, which became Giordano, the hugely successful chain of clothing stores across the region.
In 1990, following the Tiananmen Square massacre, he moved into publishing, starting Next Magazine and then, in 1995, Apple Daily. From then on he was a thorn in Beijing’s side, speaking out for freedom, supporting the democracy movement and participating in some of the city’s largest and most historic demonstrations. But he was also always unambiguous in his opposition to violence, and his advocacy only for peaceful protest.
His story is told in a remarkable documentary film, The HongKonger, produced by Acton Institute, a think-tank whose co-founder and president emeritus is a Catholic priest, Father Robert Sirico.
In 1997, Lai became a Catholic and was baptized by Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen, who at the time was the city’s coadjutor bishop.
"He’s in prison today for a simple reason. His publications told the truth about China and Hong Kong"
Lai has always been very open about his faith ever since. In one interview after his arrest in August 2020, he said he has supported Hong Kong’s democracy movement because of “the Lord’s teaching that your life is not about yourself.” He added: “The way I look at it, if I suffer for the right cause, it only defines the person I am becoming. It can only be good for me to become a better person. If you believe in the Lord, if you believe that all suffering has a reason, and the Lord is suffering with me... I'm at peace with it.”
In 2021, Lai was honored with the Christifideles Laici Award at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in the United States, for his commitment as a layperson to advancing the mission of the Church, and in May 2022 he received an honorary degree from the Catholic University of America.
Due to his imprisonment, he was unable to receive either award in person. Instead, the Christifideles Laici Award was presented to William McGurn, a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and a close friend of Lai who became his godfather at his baptism, and the honorary degree was received by Lai’s son Sebastien, on his behalf.
In his remarks at the ceremony, McGurn said of Lai: “He’s in prison today for a simple reason. His publications told the truth about China and Hong Kong. And though communism comes in many flavors — Soviet, Chinese, Cuban — the one thing that unites them all is that communism can never tolerate truth or truth-tellers. … Jimmy believes we were created for truth and that it is our job to speak the truth, especially … when no one else will at whatever the cost … How else could a man so willingly exchange the comfortable life of a Hong Kong multimillionaire for the prison cell of a Chinese dissident?”
And that is the key to understanding Lai. At any moment before his arrest in 2020, he could have left Hong Kong. He has a British passport, he had properties and businesses all over the world, including Taiwan, New York and London, and his children have been educated in Britain.
As a frequent traveler, he could have got on a flight and simply not returned. No one would have blamed him. But instead, as McGurn told the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in 2021, “Jimmy submitted to the chains and the handcuffs as an act of solidarity with the thousands of fellow Hong Kongers far less famous than he is, people who did not have the choice he did and were likewise arrested.”
And, in an extraordinary sign of faith at work, he added: “We are already seeing the fruits of Jimmy’s witness in the baptisms of some of his fellow prisoners. So while Jimmy may be stuck in prison, his soul remains free.”
Just after the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis had a long overdue meeting with Cardinal Zen. A photograph of the two was released. This was a very welcome positive step, after too many years of silence by the Vatican — and the Holy Father himself — in the face of the regime’s intensifying repression across China and Hong Kong.
In 2020, Cardinal Zen traveled to Rome to try to speak to the Pope about the Vatican’s agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, but he was refused an audience. When the Cardinal was arrested last year, the Vatican’s response was muted. But perhaps now, especially as Beijing is clearly not living up to its side of the deal, the Holy Father’s patience with the Chinese regime is wearing thin. Perhaps he recognizes that the dialogue he is so enthusiastic about pursuing with China’s dictators is unlikely to happen in any meaningful, transformative way. Perhaps he now wants to show Beijing that he is not simply going to betray his own flock in order to kowtow forever. Let’s hope so.
If so, then there are two things Pope Francis could do for Jimmy Lai.
"A meeting with Pope Francis, to highlight his father’s plight ... would be an extremely simple and yet profoundly helpful step"
The first is to speak about him publicly, pray for him and urge Catholics around the world to pray for him. He could do this at an appropriate moment, either in one of his regular Sunday Angelus appearances, or at an apposite occasion during Lent, or perhaps on the World Day of Prayer for China, established by Pope Benedict XVI, on May 24, the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians.
Since 2021, a group of Catholic legislators and activists from around the world have expanded that day to an entire Global Week of Prayer for China, at the request of Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, and it would be important to include Lai in our prayers then, as well as throughout the year.
And the second thing the pope could do is to meet his son, Sebastien. Recently Sebastien was granted a meeting with the Minister of State in Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, and he met with senior British parliamentarians in London. But a meeting with Pope Francis, to highlight his father’s plight and to receive the Holy Father’s prayers and blessing, would be an extremely simple and yet profoundly helpful step for the Vatican to arrange.
Sustained by his deep Christian faith, Lai seems to be at peace with the possibility that he may not be released from prison. But as someone who has the immense privilege of knowing him and his inspiring family, I do not want him to die in jail. All of us who share his Catholic faith and his belief in freedom, democracy and human dignity have a responsibility to pray and work for his release.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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