Acton Institute Powerblog

Jimmy Lai faces life in prison under new ‘national security law’ charges

(Photo credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Chinese Communist authorities have levied new charges against Jimmy Lai, which could result the outspoken Catholic dissident spending the rest of his life in prison. On Friday, authorities formally charged the Hong Kong media tycoon with violating its restrictive “national security law.”

“After in-depth investigation by National Security Department of Hong Kong Police, a 73-year-old man was charged with an additional offense of ‘collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security,’” Hong Kong police announced via a press statement. They added the charge will be “mentioned” during a hearing in a West Kowloon courtroom on Saturday.

Lai’s specific crime remains as vague as the terms of the law, which forbids “secession, subversion, or terrorism.” However, local media report that the charge stems from Lai’s calls for the West to exert economic pressure designed to lighten Beijing’s oppression of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.

When Lai met with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year, the Chinese government threatened, “The collusion between internal and external forces, in bringing calamity to Hong Kong and its people, is destined not to end well. … These national scum and Hong Kong sinners will always be nailed to the pillar of shame in our history.”

Just weeks before the national security law took effect, Lai stated, “Our only salvation is for President Donald Trump to … impose very draconian sanctions on China.” However, the national security law is not written as an ex post facto law, capable of punishing actions before it took effect in June. Lai immediately complied with the ordinance, telling NPR this summer that “now, accepting your interview could be collusion with foreign power. So, I have to be cautious of what I say.”

That earned him no respite from the Chinese Communist Party, which has only intensified its legal harassment of Lai over the last year.

On August 10, more than 200 police officers stormed the offices of Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper to arrest him, two of his sons, and two of his associates at the newspaper’s parent company, Next Digital, for violating the national security law. Domestic observers said the arrests were meant to shut down the popular publication, which frequently criticizes the CCP.

That represented the culmination of Beijing’s campaign of demonization and harassment against Lai for his unbridled support of ordered liberty.

Police arrested Lai twice, in February and April, for participating in Hong Kong’s sweeping protests. In September, Magistrate May Chung Ming-sun acquitted Lai of separate charges of intimidating a reporter from the rival Oriental Daily News, whom Lai said had spent years stalking and harassing him. That case carried a five-year jail sentence.

Chinese officials have kept Lai imprisoned since December 2 for yet another alleged crime of subletting a building he leases from a public company. He was not expected to be released before his “fraud” hearing on April 16. The latest charges make bail unthinkable.

“They just keep on using these kinds of laws or these kinds of allegations to try to silence people,” said Lo Kin-hei, who chairs Hong Kong’s Democratic Party.

Jimmy Lai has begged the world’s journalists, human rights advocates, and clergy to keep speaking out against the Communist regime.

“I am afraid that without the news, the world will forget us,” Lai told Reporters Without Borders when he accepted its 2020 Press Freedom Award by video on Tuesday. “Please, fellow reporters, please keep on writing about us.”

“Our power is our moral authority,” Lai said. Many global leaders have risen to his call.

UN human rights experts have condemned the law’s overbroad terminology, which has been “deployed to punish individuals for what they think (or what they are thought to think).”

“Mr. Lai’s jailing has provoked condemnation from figures as diverse as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky and New York Rep. Eliot Engel. They have been joined by journalists, activists and politicians such as the Labour Party’s Sarah Champion and other members of Parliament,” wrote Bill McGurn, Lai’s godfather, in the Wall Street Journal. “But there is one place where China’s bullying elicits only silence: the Vatican.”

Pope Francis, who has shown no trouble weighing in on other nations’ internal affairs or accusing world leaders of sin, has held his tongue about Jimmy Lai’s unjust imprisonment. Only 88-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the retired cardinal of Hong Kong, has had the courage to criticize the CCP’s harassment of his former congregant. Speaking before the latest charges had been pressed, Cardinal Zen called Lai’s prosecution “obviously a case of political intimidation.”

“We believe in the prayers, our private prayers in our religious communities, and we rely on the prayers of those who care about what’s going on in Hong Kong, as we really feel that we are at the bottom of the pit now,” said Cardinal Zen.

“God must be with us and will make His way.”

(The Acton Institute selected Jimmy Lai as its 2020 Faith and Freedom award winner. See our coverage of Jimmy Lai here.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

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