Acton Institute Powerblog

Jimmy Lai verdict expected this week

Like his fellow Hong Kong citizens, Jimmy Lai faces a date with destiny. A Chinese judge will decide on Thursday whether the Catholic dissident publisher goes to jail for up to five years over trumped-up intimidation charges.

Lai stands accused of purportedly intimidating a reporter at a Tiananmen Square memorial in 2017. But the evidence shows Lai should have felt threatened.

The Apple Daily founder says the reporter has stalked him for years on behalf of rival Oriental Daily News, which has published a menacing obituary of Lai. Ironically, prosecutors claim that Lai threatened the man by saying, “I have f—ing taken your photos.” The reporter, whom authorities have graciously allowed to remain cloaked in anonymity, testifies that he has suffered emotional duress since the incident.

Magistrate May Chung Ming-sun will hand down the decision on September 3. The charge of “criminal intimidation” carries a maximum sentence of between two and five years in prison.

This legal harassment comes apart from Lai’s prosecution for allegedly breaking China’s “national security law.” The ambiguous law – which allows Chinese judges to try Hong Kong citizens in violation of China’s handover agreement with the UK – could condemn Lai to life in prison. More than 200 agents arrested Lai, his two sons, and four other executives on August 10 in a highly publicized bust.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s once-free economic sector has begun to aid and abet the Chinese Communist Party’s own persecution campaign. Business associates report that Lai has had his personal and business accounts suspended by HSBC. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted the bank is “maintaining accounts for individuals who have been sanctioned for denying freedom to Hongkongers, while shutting accounts of those seeking freedom.” Chinese media previously warned the bank that it had been too “late” to announce its support for the sweeping national surveillance law and would need to show its “sincerity … with concrete actions in the future.”

The rest of the media have gotten the message. “A lot of people see the charges against Jimmy Lai as political,” said the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Chris Yeung. Lai and Apple Daily “have, over the years, been seen as one of the most vocal voices against the Hong Kong and the Chinese governments,” he noted. “The government is trying to further weaken the power and role of the media.”

Totalitarians’ oldest method of silencing critics has been to turn their opponents into martyrs, literally or figuratively – a fate Lai reportedly embraces. His godfather, Wall Street Journal editorial board member William McGurn, has called Lai “Hong Kong’s Thomas More.” McGurn, who knows Lai better than anyone in the West, beautifully described Lai’s feisty, fearless stance in the face of aggression, whether personal or systemic, in an article titled “Jimmy Lai, a Man for All Seasons”:

[T]he faith Jimmy and [wife] Teresa share does not promise happy outcomes. It promises only that when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we are not alone. Already the Lais would tell you there’s nothing quite so overwhelming as learning that thousands across the world—people they don’t know and will never meet—are praying for them. …

In any just society, Jimmy Lai would not be threatened. But Hong Kong is no longer such a society. In its place we are left with the powerful witness of a good man willing to give up everything except his principles, even if it means trading in the life of a billionaire for the prison cell of a Chinese dissident.

Mark W. Hendrickson of evangelical Christian Grove City College shared McGurn’s assessment. “Following in the footsteps of his Savior, Jimmy Lai appears willing to lay down his life in the struggle to secure the God-given rights of his fellow man,” he wrote. “So much for the bogus stereotype of ‘greedy, self-absorbed billionaires!’”

In the same way, Jimmy Lai’s arrest has shattered the stereotype of heartless capitalist shills apologizing for China’s every crime. An international group of think tanks from 35 nations and territories around the world penned an open letter concisely detailing creeping encroachment of the People’s Republic of China against Hong Kong’s personal and economic freedom. The signatories said they “stand with the people of Hong Kong as their rights and freedoms are threatened by the actions of the Communist Party of China.” They conclude that “a strong global response is critical.”

As Jimmy Lai’s first impending verdict becomes imminent, the world must unite against his imprisonment. One can nearly hear the words of More’s antagonist, Thomas Cromwell, echoing in China’s deeds: “It must be done by law. It’s just a matter of finding the right law.”

“Or making one.”

(Photo credit: Yung Chi Wai Derek / Shutterstock.com.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.