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Jailed Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai faces his biggest trial yet

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, known for his support of the city’s pro-democracy movement and criticism of China’s leaders, turned 76 behind bars in a maximum security prison earlier this month.

He has been in detention since 2020 and jailed for multiple charges linked to Hong Kong’s democracy protest movement and his media business, as the founder of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy, anti-Beijing newspaper that was forced to shut down in 2021.

Long an unapologetically pugilistic thorn in Beijing’s side, Lai now faces his most consequential legal challenge to date.

The trial – which is expected to last at least 80 days – is the most high-profile prosecution of a Hong Kong media figure since the city was handed over from British to Chinese control in 1997. And it could set new precedents for Hong Kong’s rapidly changing legal landscape.

Since huge and sometimes violent democracy protests swept through Hong Kong in 2019, dozens of the city’s most prominent democracy activists have been jailed or have fled overseas.

But few command the kind of international recognition that Lai does.

Prosecutors allege that articles published by Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper violated Hong Kong’s national security law by calling for overseas sanctions against the city’s leaders. Lai has pleaded not guilty.

Beijing imposed the national security law in the wake of the 2019 protests, arguing it has “restored stability” and closed loopholes that allowed “foreign forces” to undermine China.

Critics say it has decimated Hong Kong’s freedoms and transformed the city’s legal landscape.

Like all national security cases so far, the high-profile trial will not have a jury and will be presided over by three national security judges from a committee that is approved by Hong Kong’s leader. Hong Kong’s government has also blocked Lai from being represented by a British lawyer, a decision which is undergoing a separate legal challenge that has repeatedly delayed this trial’s start date.

Once one of the city’s most outspoken figures, little has been heard from Lai since his multiple prosecutions began.

Lai’s son met with Britain’s foreign minister last week to lobby for the release of his father – who is also a British citizen – after a round of similar campaigning in the US and Canada.

Chinese authorities have condemned Western criticism of Lai’s prosecution and ahead of this week’s trial reiterated the denunciations they have often employed against the media tycoon.

“It’s public knowledge that Jimmy Lai is one of the most notorious anti-China elements bent on destabilizing Hong Kong and a mastermind of the riots that took place in Hong Kong,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters last Wednesday at a regular press briefing.

“He blatantly colluded with external forces to undermine China’s national security and is responsible for numerous egregious acts. The Hong Kong (government) took action to hold him accountable in accordance with the law. This is beyond reproach,” Mao added.

Hong Kong authorities have employed more cautious language, declining to comment on legal proceedings while defending how police and prosecutors have pursued national security prosecutions.

“All cases concerning offense endangering national security will be handled in a fair and timely manner,” the spokesperson added.

Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for China, Sarah Brooks, said the trial “epitomizes the rapid decline of rule of law in Hong Kong.”

“This case has been an attack on press freedom and freedom of expression from the very start. The Hong Kong authorities must release Jimmy Lai immediately and unconditionally and expunge his criminal convictions. No one should be prosecuted solely for exercising their human rights,” Brooks said in a statement on Friday (Dec 15).

The Committee to Protect Journalists called the trial “a travesty of justice.”

“It is press freedom and the rule of law that are on trial in Hong Kong,” CPJ’s Asia program coordinator Beh Lih Yi said.

Rags to riches

Lai’s fortunes, both personal and financial, are inextricably tied to the history of modern Hong Kong.

As the Great Chinese Famine gripped mainland China in 1960, Lai smuggled himself out of the southern province of Guangdong and into the then British colony of Hong Kong in the bottom of a fishing boat. He arrived in the city at the age of 12 and dirt poor.

Lai said he became an odd jobs man at a textile factory, making 60 Hong Kong dollars ($7) a month and living in an apartment with 10 others in the slum neighborhood of Sham Shui Po – still one of Hong Kong’s most impoverished districts.

Within two decades, Lai had learned English, worked his way up the factory floor to the position of salesman and decided to start his own retail line. On one trip to New York during fabric sampling season, he bought a pizza. Written on the napkin was the name Giordano.

That became the name of his wildly successful, casual men’s clothing chain, which made Lai his first fortune.

But China’s deadly 1989 crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square politicized Lai and created something of a rarity in Hong Kong: a wealthy tycoon willing to openly criticize Beijing’s leaders.

He moved out of the clothing business and chose a new role – media baron.

Lai founded Apple Daily in 1995, two years before Hong Kong was handed over to China.

Modeled visually on USA Today, the paper caused a minor revolution in the city’s media landscape, sparking a price war and drastically changing how rivals operated as they struggled to keep up with Lai’s flashy tabloid sensibilities.

While celebrity gossip and other tabloid fare were a mainstay at the paper, it also emerged as one of the fiercest critics of the local government and Beijing, winning awards for its exposés on corruption and human rights reporting.

It was also openly supportive of successive waves of pro-democracy protests that swept through Hong Kong, culminating in the 2019 movement. Lai himself was frequently seen at the marches, in the pouring rain or blazing summer heat, sparking denunciations from China’s state-run media.

As unrest between protesters and police became increasingly violent, calls from a minority of protesters for Hong Kong independence from mainland China grew – a red line in the eyes of Beijing authorities, who brandished all pro-democracy calls as a US-backed “color revolution,” and described protesters as “rioters,” “radicals” and “thugs”.

A devout Catholic and vocal supporter of former US President Donald Trump, Lai had lobbied extensively overseas for foreign governments to apply pressure on China over Hong Kong. During this period of social unrest, Lai traveled to Washington where he met with then Vice President Mike Pence to discuss the political situation in Hong Kong and other leading politicians.

In the eyes of Beijing, this was seen as colluding with foreign forces to undermine the country’s security.

US sanctions have long infuriated Chinese authorities and often spark reciprocal measures. During the 2019 protests, Beijing was incensed at Hong Kongers like Lai who openly called for restrictions to be placed on Chinese and Hong Kong officials. State media mouthpiece Global Times, for example, described Lai’s meetings with US politicians as “intervention of foreign forces” by a “group of traitors,” and vowed to punish such actions.

The US has since sanctioned multiple Hong Kong and Chinese officials over Beijing’s ongoing crackdown in the city.

When Beijing imposed the new national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020, Lai said publicly that he knew he would likely become a target but he vowed to remain in Hong Kong nonetheless.

Lai was marched out of his own newsroom in August 2020 and arrested by the national security police on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces.

In June the following year hundreds of police officers raided Apple Daily’s headquarters, declaring the newsroom a crime scene under the national security law.

Officers arrested executives and top news editors, seized journalistic materials and confiscated laptops, computers and mobile phones.

A week later, Apple Daily printed its final edition. All 1 million copies – 10 times more than its usual print run – sold out.

The paper’s closure sent a deep chill through Hong Kong’s media industry. Multiple smaller local outlets critical of Hong Kong’s government also followed Apple Daily in shuttering following police investigations.

“Freedom of speech and press cannot become a ‘shield’ for criminal acts, nor can media organizations become a place above the law where they are immune from accountability,” China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said a day after Apple Daily closed following the national security raid.

Hong Kong’s government has also repeatedly denied that the city’s media freedoms have been affected by the law.

But that is disputed by multiple human rights and media groups.

In its annual World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranks Hong Kong 140 out of 180 countries and territories, down from 18th place two decades ago. Mainland China is ranked at 179.

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