On September 3, the Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai was cleared of criminal intimidation charges dating from 2017, bringing to a close one of several pending cases against him.
Lai, one of the most noteworthy critics of China’s suppression of the city’s pro-democracy movement, allegedly had directed foul language at a reporter from the pro-Beijing newspaper Oriental Daily, a competing media outlet to Lai’s Apple Daily, during a vigil to commemorate the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre.
The Hong Kong court ruled in favor of the media baron, stating it had not found sufficient evidence to support allegations that Lai meant to harm a reporter during the 2017 incident. The magistrate, May Chung, added that she believed Lai appeared to be acting out of impulse, anger and frustration and that she didn’t accept that the reporter was frightened by Lai’s words.
In just one of many attempts to silence Lai, prosecutors had alleged that his remarks to the reporter constituted menacing threats of injury with intent to cause alarm.
However, more serious charges have yet to be dealt with.
Lai has been arrested multiple times this year in connection to pro-democracy activities and faces allegations that the country deems a threat to “national security.”
The outcome of these accusations could have resounding implications for the pro-Democratic movement.
Who is Jimmy Lai?
Lai Chee-Ying, known colloquially as Jimmy Lai, fled his village in mainland China when he was 12 years old and arrived in Hong Kong as a stowaway on a fishing boat.
Prior to founding his multimillion-dollar empire, he worked in a Hong Kong sweatshop. Lai later founded Giordano, a clothing retailer, Next Digital, a media company, and, in 1995, the popular newspaper Apple Daily.
The fate of Lai and his publication have stoked widespread fears, with viewers heeding the case as a principal ruling that will determine press freedom following the country’s newly-imposed national security law.
Lai’s case is one of several that offer immediate insight into Hong Kong’s legal system and how it will fare under China’s tightened reins.
We have to be more careful and creative in [our] resistance … we can’t be as radical as before – especially young people – because the more radical [we are] the shorter lifespan we have in our fighting.”
“We have to really use our brain and patience, because this is a long fight.”
A “symbolic exercise”
Lai, 71, was one of 10 people arrested on August 10 for violating the country’s national security law over accusations of foreign collusion. His arrest was immediately followed by hundreds of police raiding the Apple Daily newsroom.
Two of those arrested were Lai’s sons, four were senior executives at Lai’s Next Digital company and three were activists.
The Hong Kong media tycoon referred to the arrests and raid as a “symbolic exercise” by local authorities to demonstrate that the sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing has “teeth.”
In the days following Lai’s arrest, Next Digital shares soared, rising by as much as 1,100%. The increase was chiefly a result of pro-democracy supporters buying the company’s shares in an effort to push back against the government.
Shortly after, Lai was released on bail and US$6.5 million of his money was reported to have been frozen.
The media tycoon has been arrested at least three times since the mass 2019 Hong Kong protests, usually over accusations of inciting illegal protests.
A spokesperson for China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, which is run by the country’s State Council, released a statement on Monday saying that it “firmly supports” the arrests of Jimmy Lai and others who were apprehended. “People who colluded with foreign forces to endanger national security should be sternly punished under the law.”
The spokesperson went on to say that “Hong Kong will not have stability if this danger is not removed.”
In an interview with Reuters in May, Lai pledged to stay in Hong Kong, despite his British citizenship, in order to continue to advocate for democracy even though he was fully aware he was a key target under the new legislation.
Speaking after his release on bail, Lai told the BBC he believed his arrest was “just the beginning” and added that there will be “a long fight” ahead for Hong Kong’s freedoms.
The Apple Daily said it printed 550,000 copies of Tuesday’s paper – compared to its usual print run of around 70,000 copies – in response to the paper selling out in recent days as citizens showed their support for Lai.
China’s new national security law
The new security law that took effect June 30 creates deliberately vague offenses that can be used to detain those who criticize Beijing, punishing anything China considers “subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces” with up to life in prison.
The new legislation has sent a chill through Hong Kong, as some slogans have been declared illegal and books have been taken off of the shelves of public libraries. Many activists have disbanded their organizations, while some have fled the city altogether.
The Hong Kong government had initially pledged that the law would not infringe on rights and freedoms and that it was needed to protect the nation’s security, directing its focus to a small minority of “troublemakers.”
Although the Chinese government had called for “severe punishment” of those who “collude with foreign forces” to harm national security, Lai said he was relieved that he had not been taken to mainland China and that the police who dealt with his case were Hong Kongers.
Accusations against Lai of foreign collusion stemmed in part from his visit to the United States last year, where he met Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This visit resulted in Beijing labeling him a “traitor.”
The People’s Daily, a pro-Beijing media outlet, even contended last year that Lai was part of a collective of “secretive middlemen and modern traitors.”
Lai’s remaining charges under the national security law include subversion and collusion with a foreign country – offenses punishable by up to life in prison.
Analysts have warned that the new legislation allows for people accused of breaching the law to be transferred to mainland courts for trial, where 99% of cases result in a conviction.
However, many describe Apple Daily as a critical voice among Hong Kong’s state-run media outlets and fear that the attack on the publication’s founder is part of a larger attack on the region’s freedom of speech.
Daisy Li, chief editor at the online site CitizenNews, said, “Apple Daily is almost the only one among mainstream media outlets that is not afraid of antagonizing the Hong Kong or Chinese governments. Now it has become a lonely voice.”
Lai called the international support for him a sign that “what we are doing is right.”
“I am in my 70s and there was never a time when I felt so moved and so happy, knowing that I’ve been doing the right thing. I’m near the end of my life, it’s a very precious feeling,” he said.
Have a tip or story? Get in touch with our reporters at firstname.lastname@example.org