Acton Institute Powerblog

‘God is always at my center’: Jimmy Lai receives Acton Institute’s 2020 Faith and Freedom Award

Jimmy Lai accepting the Faith and Freedom Award on Wednesday, November 18, 2020. (Photo credit: Screenshot.)

Everyone in the global fight for liberty has some item that cultivated his intellectual palate. For Chinese dissident Jimmy Lai, it was a candy bar.

As an eight-year-old boy, he worked as a baggage carrier in a railway station in his native mainland China. After he carried the bag of a visitor from Hong Kong, the man gave the future billionaire a piece of chocolate. “It was amazing,” he says. Eating that delectable sweet made him believe “Hong Kong must be Heaven, because I’ve never tasted anything like that.” One bite of that confection gave him a taste for freedom.

At the age of 12, he sailed off – alone – to Hong Kong, hidden in the bottom of a fishing junket. “In the morning, I smelled a lot of food that I never smelled, the great aroma of food,” Lai remembers. “It was as if I arrived in Heaven.” Waking up in that bustling land of opportunity, surrounded by the abundance that economic freedom facilitates, “I knew I had a future.”

Lai’s prowess in the fashion industry turned him into a billionaire. But at the time when most people would concentrate on how to enjoy their wealth, he felt his homeland calling. On June 4, 1989, no one could block out the sound, as Chinese tanks crushed peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square. The assault struck a deeply personal chord with Lai. “It’s like my mother was calling,” he says, “and my heart opened up.”

Lai used his fortune to begin publishing the Apple Daily. Its honest coverage of Beijing made the newspaper one of the most popular in Hong Kong. Lai says his vocation as an entrepreneur compelled him to spread liberty through the printed word. “In the media business, you deliver information, then you deliver choice, and choice is freedom,” he says.

His activities soon caught the attention of the Chinese Communist Party. After China’s aggressive (read: illegal) combination of industrial insourcing and global exports drove decades of double-digit GDP growth, the world’s newest economic powerhouse suppressed internal dissent through increasingly violent means. Soon, the CCP turned its eyes on Lai’s honest publication.

Lai’s love of freedom landed him in government confinement. More than 200 police officers stormed the offices of Lai’s newspaper on August 10 to arrest him and two of his sons for violating China’s draconian new “national security law.” Lai already faced five years’ imprisonment for trumped-up charges of intimidating a reporter. He was acquitted of that case in September, but the possibility of a longer prison term looms over the 71 year old.

Lai, who owns numerous mansions around the world, could have fled Hong Kong at the first sign of trouble. He has instead committed himself to fighting for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to speak truth to power. His godfather, Wall Street Journal editorial board member William McGurn, has called Lai “Hong Kong’s Thomas More.”

The Acton Institute agrees that Lai’s sterling character in the face of totalitarian adversity deserves all the plaudits we can muster. For that reason, we have awarded Lai our 2020 Faith and Freedom Award.

The awards ceremony took place as the Acton Institute held an online celebration of our 30th anniversary on Wednesday night. Video clips featured prominent speakers from previous annual dinners, include Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr., Chuck Colson, and Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. The one-hour affair traversed the full history of the Acton Institute, from the day Co-founders Rev. Robert A. Sirico and Kris Mauren met, to their trips through the rubble of the Berlin Wall and their triumphant visits to the ash heap of socialism as the free market outperformed command economics in the former Eastern Bloc.

The evening’s penultimate event came as Mauren and Rev. Sirico presented Lai with the 2020 Faith and Freedom award over a video link. “I thank Friedrich Hayek for his inspirations for me to determine to fight for freedom in my life,” said Lai, who also thanked Hong Kong and the Roman Catholic Church for their formative influences. The Catholic website Crux reported part of Lai’s remarks:

“I came here with one dollar and the freedom here has given me the opportunity to build up myself. And the value that is underlying this freedom is so precious and that’s exactly what we are fighting for in Hong Kong now,” he said.

“Freedom has a price,” Lai says.

That fight, which so many believed had been won in the 1990s, proves to Rev. Sirico that bad ideas are never fully vanquished. Crux quoted him telling the teleconference’s viewers:

“When you see a man like this, who is looking at a potential jail sentence in a Chinese cell it prompts in us a certain inspiration but also an awareness that socialism is resilient,” Sirico said. “The collectivism idea, the idea of dominating other people, that politics is the solution to our problems … These are the challenges we’re facing this day in age.”

The Acton Institute’s 30th anniversary celebration comes at a crucial moment in the West. Socialism, even Communism, enjoys disturbingly high levels of popularity in the U.S., especially among young people. It’s bad enough that socialism masquerades as economics, but it increasingly takes on all the trappings of a religion. As collectivist ideology fills the void left by Christianity, socialism slowly suffocates true religious faith beneath the weight of its intellectual pretensions. It weaponizes government and pressures the shrinking private sector to punish its political enemies.

Socialism, never known for its productivity, has the ability to produce myriads of Jimmy Lais.

Jimmy Lai takes solace in the fact that, through the mystery of Jesus Christ’s identification with His believers, his Lord shares in his sorrows – and in some way, Lai’s persecution allows him to share in Christ’s temporal sufferings. That strengthens him to bear whatever burden may be coming with confidence and assurance in God’s providence. “It is always in my mind as a Catholic that God is always my center,” Lai says.

Like Jimmy Lai, anyone who puts God at the center will never miss the target.

Rev. Ben Johnson

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