Early Tuesday morning local time, guards hurried pro-democracy and human rights advocate Jimmy Lai out of his prison transport – handcuffed, arms chained around his waist like a member of a chain gang – and inside the courthouse. Lai’s only apparent consolation came from a copy of Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, which his wife and child had given him days earlier. The bestselling spiritual classic instructs:
The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.
Inside the hearing, a significant torment awaited Lai.
The Court of Final Appeal overturned a lower court ruling and denied him bail, sending the 73-year-old billionaire back to a maximum security prison until his hearing on April 16.
If convicted, he could face life in prison for violations of a law that legal scholars find inscrutable and infinitely elastic. The “national security law” foisted on Hong Kong by Beijing last summer proscribes “secession, subversion, or terrorism” – terms the law leaves so ill-defined that UN human rights experts warn they could be “deployed to punish individuals for what they think (or what they are thought to think).” Officials have made little secret of their attempts to destroy Lai and the jewel of his media empire, Apple Daily, which has exposed the crimes of the Chinese Communist Party.
Tuesday’s hearing proved highly idiosyncratic. It eliminated standards that increase transparency; instituted what amounts to a presumption of guilt; and placed its draconian new law above the existing constitution, international human rights accords, and hundreds of years of legal norms.
Hong Kong has burnished its legal legitimacy by inviting foreign judges to hear, and rule on, cases before the Court of Final Appeal. The court has a list of 14 justices from the UK, Australia, and Canada already approved and authorized to participate in trials like Lai’s. However, the Beijing-friendly Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, refused to appoint an outside judge in his case, having Lai tried before three permanent justices and two temporary, local judges.
“Instances of the Court of Final Appeal hearing cases without a foreign judge presiding are rare. As of September 30 last year, overseas judges had been involved in 690 out of 700 substantive appeals at the top court – or 98.6 per cent – since the city’s 1997 handover back to China, according to the judiciary,” reported the South China Morning Post. “Past exceptions were either because no suitable judges were free, or due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’.”
When outspoken Christian dissidents come before the bar, exceptions get made.
Once inside, the panel of domestic judges ruled that Hong Kong would jettison its long heritage of British common law in favor of the Chinese Communists’ party line. British common law presumes the accused is innocent and forces prosecutors to prove he is a flight risk, may intimidate witnesses, or is likely to reoffend. But China’s national security law effectively requires the defendant to prove his future innocence. Article 42, section 2, of the national security law states that “no bail shall be granted to a criminal suspect or defendant unless the judge has sufficient grounds for believing [they] will not continue to commit acts endangering national security.”
The judges further ruled the Chinese-imposed law “was not open to constitutional review and Hong Kong’s most senior judges had no power to correct parts of the legislation alleged to run counter to the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the paper reported.
This is only the latest act of jurisprudential gymnastics in the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to “get” Jimmy Lai.
Jimmy Lai arrived in Hong Kong from his home in mainland China as a 12-year-old boy and rose from a child laborer to the billionaire mogul of a media empire. He initially earned his money in the clothing industry, but when he saw the Tiananmen Square massacre, he founded Apple Daily to present a pro-democracy perspective on Chinese affairs. As China gained control of Hong Kong in 1997 and progressively reneged on its “one country, two systems” model, the CCP has persecuted those who speak out.
As Hong Kong’s most prominent dissident, Lai has been subjected to legal harassment under the guise of baseless legal accusations. Police initially arrested Lai and two of his children last August, when hundreds of agents conducted the first sweep of the “special administrative region” under the new “national security law.” Last fall, Lai was accused, and acquitted, of intimidating a reporter for the rival Oriental Daily News. (Lai states the alleged victim stalked him.) Authorities again booked Lai on December 3 for “fraud,” putatively for violating the terms of his lease of a government building. Lai’s associates say the charges represent China’s campaign to “dirty him up” before locking him away.
But Justice Alex Lee Wan-tang ordered Lai released on $10 million bail (HK, or $1.3 million U.S.) on December 23. The harsh terms of his release barred Lai from granting media interviews, meeting foreign officials, or using social media. On December 29, Lai stepped down as chairman of his media group, Next Digital, to the delight of Chinese officials who have tried to hamper the independent media outlet’s effectiveness.
But authorities had Lai taken back into custody just eight days later, on New Year’s Eve.
Officials transferred Lai from the Lai Chi Kok Correctional Institute to the Stanley Prison – Hong Kong’s largest maximum security prison – on January 14, again with hands cuffed and chained to his waist. Stanley Prison houses hardened inmates serving life sentences.
Communist tyrants have historically used false promises of releasing prisoners as a form of “mental torture.” Some of those familiar with Marxist tactics have tried to bring Lai solace.
A few of Lai’s supporters braved the opprobrium of CCP officials and showed their solidarity with him in court Tuesday. Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 89-year-old bishop emeritus of Hong Kong whom former President Donald Trump likened to Thomas Becket, watched the hearing with Lai’s family. Pope Francis, however, has held his peace on the arrest of the region’s most prominent Catholic layman. The pontiff said not a word about the legal farce, nor did he allow Lai’s persecution to scuttle the Vatican’s extension of its controversial accord with Beijing last fall.
After the ruling, agents hustled Lai back into the prison transport through a plastic tube, which they affixed to the prison transport – an attempt to minimize exposure of the way Chinese Communist Party officials have treated the calm and pacific septuagenarian.
From the beginning, Lai has embraced his fate with the calm of a martyr. “Being a Catholic, you have the instinct to stand up [to] what is wrong, because that’s the way we walk in the way of the Lord,” he said. Although he could easily flee Hong Kong for one of his numerous homes around the world, he has used his suffering to put a global spotlight on Chinese socialist repression. “Freedom has a price,” said Lai, as he remotely accepted the Acton Institute’s 2020 Faith and Freedom Award last November.
Now, he returns to Stanley prison – joined by more politicians, activists, and people of principle who refuse to let the destruction of freedom proceed without a fight. As Soviet-era dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, and Natan Sharansky – or the more recent Chen Guangcheng – have demonstrated, one courageous witness can expose a global cloud of lies. But one who accepts his suffering with the same Christlike spirit as Jesus embraced His passion enlists an unseen army in his spiritual warfare against injustice, oppression, and legally enforced blasphemy.
“People have no idea what one saint can do,” wrote Merton, “for sanctity is stronger than the whole of hell.”
For more on Lai’s remarkable life before his legal troubles intensified, see the Acton Institute’s documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur.