Acton Institute Powerblog

Jimmy Lai ‘guilty,’ faces 5 years in prison for democratic assembly

In the latest twist in China’s suppression of Hong Kong’s rights, pro-democracy dissident Jimmy Lai has been convicted of taking part in an unauthorized, prayerful assembly and entered a guilty plea to taking part in a second such event. The human rights leader faces five years in prison for leading a protest in which thousands prayed and sang Christian hymns in the streets.

Officials charged Lai and six others with leading a protest for democracy on August 31, 2019, without receiving permission from the police. Any demonstration not previously permitted by the authorities, who are now heavily influenced by Beijing, violates the Public Order Ordinance. Each infraction carries a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment.

Lai’s guilty plea on Wednesday, April 7, came just days after his April 1 conviction for committing the identical “crime” on August 18, 2019.

Lai’s “crime” comes in leading a peaceful march through the streets, as the crowd carried signs for their “five demands,” including the revocation of a controversial extradition bill that would allow suspects in Hong Kong to be tried in mainland China.

Pro-democracy demonstrators “can also be heard singing the Christian hymn Sing Hallelujah to the Lord, the unofficial ‘anthem’ of the protests,” reported the South China Morning Post. The Easter hymn, penned in 1974 by Linda Stassen-Benjamin, became the protesters’ unifying song, because religious gatherings can be held in Hong Kong without prior police authorization. Only about one in ten Hong Kong residents is a Christian. However, the freedom persists as a reminder of the Separate Administrative Region’s long history as a colony of Great Britain prior to the UK’s July 1, 1997, handover of the province to China.

Video footage of the 2019 protests reveal those members of the enormous gathering sometimes carried images of Jesus as police barraged them with tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets.

The prominence of an Easter hymn, and Lai’s resigned guilty plea on the eve of Good Friday, underscore the pivotal role that religious freedom plays in securing every other liberty. Hong Kong freedom protesters made a Christian hymn their anthem, just as U.S. civil rights protesters sang “We Shall Overcome” and “People Get Ready.” These songs highlight the inherent dignity of every individual created in the image and likeness of Almighty God. Recognizing human dignity is the starting point of all subsequent human rights such as equality before the law, the right to influence the law by voting, and the freedom of conscience – including the subsequent and attendant right to express one’s views, however regaled or reviled, in speech, writing, or public assembly.

China, however, viciously crushes every hint of religious sentiment. Radio Free Asia reports that the Chinese Communist Party operates a series of “transformation” facilities that torture and attempt to brainwash detained Christians across China, particularly in Sichuan province. Officials with the CCP’s United Front Work Department capture members of unauthorized Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and hold them for months at a time in windowless holding cells, subjecting them to vicious beatings, injecting them with drugs, and depriving them of sleep for prolonged periods of time unless believers renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. A lawyer added that Catholics had faced such repression for years.

“They just disappeared them, sometimes for five, six or even 10 years at a stretch,” he told RFA.

The CCP’s hostility to the Falun Gong sect and its concentration camps operate for Uighur Muslims are well known.

The situation is scarcely better for those who attempt to operate within China’s system. The CCP has implemented a strategy for the “sinicization” of religion, forcing priests and pastors to interpret “religious thought, doctrines, and teachings in a way that conforms with” Marxist Communism/socialism. To this end, Chinese Communist officials have rewritten the Gospel of John to claim Jesus Christ stoned a woman to deathoppressed true Christian leadersreplaced the Ten Commandments with posters containing socialist propaganda, erased the First Commandment of the Decalogue to “have no other gods,” and ordered Christian believers to remove pictures of Jesus from their living rooms or lose the government pension keeping them alive.

Similarly, Chinese officials issued Order No. 15, claiming the exclusive right to name “bishops” to the state-recognized Catholic Church without any papal input – reneging on Beijing’s 2018 deal with the Vatican, which both parties renewed just last fall. The crackdown has to elicit a public response from Pope Francis.

Beijing clearly trembles in fear before God – any god. Religious belief confirms a power higher than the state, confines government actions within the strictures of morality, and confers dignity and human rights on all people. China’s intensifying encroachment on Hong Kong, and this conviction of Lai and his associations, forecast that any expression of faith will be suppressed, by any means necessary.

In the April 1 cases, the judge convicted six others with Lai, including Martin Lee, the 82-year-old founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. Lai’s lawyer urged the judge to fine the billionaire or hand out a suspended sentence, due to Lai’s peaceful actions.

But during her ruling on April 1, Judge Amanda Woodock dismissed calls to dispense with jail sentences over the peaceful protest of August 18, 2019, whose only side effect was blocking traffic. Failing to lock up its leaders “would give the law no teeth and make a mockery of it,” she said.

Judge Woodcock will issue her sentence for both purported infractions on April 16.

Lai faces life in prison for separate allegations that he violated the ill-defined provisions of the “national security law.”

Additional reading:

You can see the Acton Institute’s full coverage of Jimmy Lai here.

‘Mental torture’? Jimmy Lai denied bail for second time

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

Jimmy Lai, 2020 Acton award recipient, arrested and denied bail

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

Jimmy Lai innocent, Pope Francis silent on Hong Kong

Jimmy Lai verdict expected this week

Jimmy Lai: China must embrace ‘Western values’

Pro-democracy media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai arrested in Hong Kong

Hong Kong and the enduring value of the Declaration of Independence

Meet the two Chinese Christians Donald Trump compared to Thomas Becket

China’s crackdown knocks Hong Kong off list of economically free nations

Acton Line podcast: The story of Jimmy Lai’s fight against Chinese oppression

The persecution of Jimmy Lai

For more on Lai’s remarkable life before his legal troubles intensified, see the Acton Institute’s documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur.

Rev. Ben Johnson

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