Jimmy Lai Chee-ying (known simply as Jimmy Lai) has been called the “Rupert Murdoch of Asia” and is recognized as the wealthiest media tycoon in Hong Kong. However, outside of Asia, Lai is probably best known as the face of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong that has riled the city in what have occasionally been violent protests.
Lai has built a complicated legacy, starting out as the head of a clothing retail empire before transitioning into the media. He’s an outspoken critic of China’s ruling Communist Party and has earned the ire of China’s state-run media for his opposition to the government.
Lai has also nurtured relationships with American politicians and has shown a willingness to embrace far-right talking points.
The rise of Jimmy Lai
Lai’s rise to become one of the richest men in Hong Kong has been called a “rags to riches” story. He was born in the mainland China province of Guangdong in 1948 and is said to have started working at the age of nine, carrying bags for passengers at the local railway station, before stowing away on a boat to Hong Kong in 1960.
Lai found work at a glove factory and within a few years became that factory’s general manager.
At the age of 26, having invested his savings in the stock market, Lai was able to buy the first of what would be numerous factories and started producing clothing that sold in J.C. Penney and other American retailers. This success would lead to the creation of Giordano in 1981.
Giordano is one of the biggest clothing retailers in the Asia Pacific region and sells products to countries around the world. Lai initially intended the company to be a high-end clothing retailer, but when that failed to take off, he switched the focus to affordable, casual wear.
By 1991, the company’s growth led to it being listed on the Hong Kong stock market.
Though Lai would continue to oversee Giordano until he sold his shares for HK$1.45 billion in 1996, his focus had already shifted by 1989.
Jimmy Lai’s media empire
Following the Tiananmen Square protests, Lai started Next Weekly, a Cantonese-language magazine that quickly found an audience with its investigative pieces and critical coverage of the Chinese government.
At times, his criticism has garnered a backlash, as when China shut down Giordano stores on the mainland in 1993. That same year, Lai was put under police protection following attacks on himself and his company, including having a Molotov cocktail thrown into his home.
At the time, Lai downplayed any concerns over the attacks.
“’I guess the incident might be related to reports in Next magazine which might have upset some people. It is a minor issue. No big deal. Next magazine will continue its editorial policy and our staff will continue working as usual. Vandalism cannot frighten us.”
That defiance of his critics continued with the expansion of Next Digital and the creation of Apple Daily in 1995, a liberal, anti-Beijing tabloid magazine aimed at the working class. Lai invested HK$100 million to start Apple Daily, which rapidly changed the media landscape in Hong Kong and has now grown into one of the most read publications in the city.
Now firmly entrenched as the most successful media tycoon in Hong Kong, Lai continues to use his platforms to criticize China’s leadership and advocate for an independent, democratic Hong Kong.
The pro-democracy movement
In recent years, Lai has frequently appeared in Western media as one of the leading proponents of a democratic Hong Kong. He has used his platforms to support the movement and donated substantial sums of money to pro-democracy politicians.
The pro-democracy movement seeks to make the city an autonomous region, no longer subject to China’s whims.
Since 1997, Hong Kong has been in a state of limbo known as “one country, two systems.” Mainland China rules the city, officially known as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. However, the citizens of Hong Kong have more freedom than those of China, particularly when it comes to criticizing the Communist Party of China, as is evidenced by Lai’s publications.
In April 2019, protests erupted in Hong Kong when the city’s leaders attempted to pass an extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to China. The protests led the leaders to withdraw the bill, but the protests have continued.
In February 2020, Hong Kong police arrested Lai, among others, for participating in a pro-democracy assembly that occurred in August 2019. Protests that month resulted in clashes between protesters and police, with authorities using tear gas on protesters.
Lai was released on a HK$4,000 bail, but he is unable to leave Hong Kong while he awaits trial.
Xinhua, an official state-run press agency of the People’s Republic of China, has called Lai “despicable” for his role in “fomenting chaos in Hong Kong.” The publication insists that most people in Hong Kong do not want the protests to continue and wish Lai would stop using his media platforms to stir up unrest and anger.
For years, state-run media has tried to paint Lai as the instigator of the pro-democracy movement, insisting that it is not the will of the people. Some have also insisted that Lai is responsible for the violence that has resulted from the protests.
The security bill controversy
During the COVID-19 crisis in Hong Kong, protests subsided for a time. But with coronavirus cases mostly eradicated, protesters reemerged in late April to resist the “one country, two systems” status.
In May 2020, the protests gained a new focus: a controversial law that would allow China to set up national security institutions in Hong Kong. The law was so broadly drawn that many feared it could be used to shut down any form of dissent, including protests, journalism and even Twitter accounts.
In May 2020, Lai wrote an op-ed for The New York Times entitled “Do My Tweets Really Threaten China’s National Security?” In the piece, Lai argued that it was clear the law, created in the name of quelling secession and terrorism, would ultimately be turned on any form of dissent.
The bill passed through China’s legislature at the end of May, which has led to criticism from the US government. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that Hong Kong has lost its autonomy, as “China is modeling Hong Kong after itself.”
Alliances with the US and the far-right
Lai has built a friendly relationship with US President Donald Trump and other conservative American politicians. In return, the US has shown a willingness to support the protesters.
In November 2019, Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which forbids the exportation of tear gas and crowd control technology to Hong Kong.
The US has also expressed a willingness to allow citizens of Hong Kong to flee the city for refuge in America, especially significant at a time when the US has cut the number of refugees it’s accepting overall.
Some claim that Washington is intentionally backing the protest as a way of hurting China. These same voices also argue that the pro-democracy movement is built on xenophobia and is aligned with the far-right.
The support for these assertions is tenuous, though Lai has been critical of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, tweeting that the “riots in America are nothing like Hong Kong.”
That tweet includes a video of the Australian far-right political commentator, Avi Yemeni, who has been accused of “consorting” with Neo-Nazis.
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