Acton Institute Powerblog

The persecution of Jimmy Lai

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It’s no secret that China isn’t exactly flavor of the month throughout the world right now. Before the court of global opinion, the reputation of the Chinese regime is about as low as it can go. That, however, does not appear to be deterring China’s Communist leadership from continuing to behave in ways which have rightfully drawn upon it the odium of the world.

There are of course plenty of people in China who disapprove of their government’s actions. The same individuals know, however, that anyone who questions any of Beijing’s policies—from the regime’s efforts to crush religious liberty to its habit of systematically lying over and over again about topics ranging from the state of its economy to the coronavirus’s effects upon the Chinese population—cannot expect any of the protections which Westerners take for granted.

The situation is somewhat different in Hong Kong. Its special political status and its unique economic position has meant that, until relatively recently, there was more space for citizens to tell the truth about Beijing’s behavior. In this regard, few have done more than the businessman and pro-democracy political activist, Jimmy Lai.

Thanks to documentaries such as The Call of the Entrepreneur (2007), Lai’s story is now relatively well-known to the wider world. His is literally a rags-to-riches story—the poor boy who leaves the catastrophe of Mao’s Communist China, makes his start in Hong Kong’s garment industry, and eventually gets to the top of the then-British colony’s highly competitive economy.

In more recent years, Lai has emerged as one of the leaders of those Hong Kong residents who want to preserve those liberties and institutions that have made Hong Kong such an economic success-story: one that has consistently put Hong King at or near the top of the Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom ever since the Index began 25 years ago. Lai has put everything on the line—his business, his reputation, and, many now worry, his freedom and life.

Lai hasn’t been shy about putting his resources behind the pro-democracy protests that have roiled Hong Kong for months. Even before that, he was an outspoken critic of the pro-Beijing parties that run Hong Kong and which, Lai believes, have steadily acquiesced in mainland China’s determination to “throttle,” to use the recent apt expression of Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s distinct status.

Lai has paid a big price for his activism. There have been numerous efforts, for example, to crush his business enterprises. Pro-regime newspapers regularly attack him. In early 2015, Lai even endured a firebombing of his home as well as his business headquarters.

Lai’s also been arrested on several occasions. On April 18 this year, he and 15 other pro-democracy activists were arrested on charges of illegal assembly. That followed an arrest in February on similar charges. Plainly, the regime is starting to ramp up the pressure.

Is any of this likely to deter Lai from pursuing his present course? I doubt it. There’s nothing about his business career to suggest any likely change of direction or a willingness to back down. Hong Kong may be one of the world’s freest economies, but it is also one of the toughest. Little quarter is given in an extremely competitive environment. That’s especially true of the media sector in Hong Kong and Taiwan in which Lai has operated since the late-1980s and early-1990s.

That said, let’s remember what type of regime is in charge in China. The coronavirus pandemic, or, more precisely, Beijing’s reaction to it, confirms everything about the nature of the Communist Party government that has become more and more evident over the past ten years. And if you have any doubts about that, just consider what the regime does to those doctors who have dared to speak the truth about what is really going on with China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. They have been “disappearing.”

Does anyone have any doubt that this is precisely what would happen to Jimmy Lai—or any other of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders—if the Chinese Communist Party was able to play by Beijing rules in Hong Kong?

In a way, Lai’s very public presence is a form of protection for him. You can’t easily “disappear” a major media proprietor and entrepreneur without a lot of people and even governments immediately noticing and protesting. Nevertheless Beijing doesn’t have much to lose these days when it comes to its public reputation. After all, how much lower could it go? If there was ever a time for the regime to decide that it wanted to take extra steps against those who stand for liberty in Hong Kong, it would be now.

Lai and his fellow defenders of freedom surely know all this. The risks that they are running are very high. Some people, however, believe that being a free man is indeed one of those rare things worth fighting for.

Jimmy Lai is such a man.

Samuel Gregg

is director of research at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.