Jimmy Lai is a 75-year-old British citizen based in Hong Kong. He is the founder of Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s most popular newspapers until its forced closure in June 2021. It was the major Chinese language independent, pro-democracy, anti-corruption media organisation: speaking truth to power in a language which could be readily understood across Hong Kong and in mainland China. Jimmy Lai is a well-known and high-profile supporter of the Hong Kong democracy movement and advocate for peaceful assembly, and he has been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government.
Jimmy Lai escaped communist China and came to Hong Kong at the age of 12, stowing away on a fishing boat. When he arrived, he began work as a child labourer in a clothing factory. He was hardworking and determined and rose to the position of factory manager. In 1981 he founded his own clothing chain: Giordano. It became extremely successful, with over 2,000 shops operating in more than 30 countries and regions worldwide.
The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre were a turning point for Jimmy Lai. Horrified by what he saw, he decided to use his wealth and power to hold the Government of the People’s Republic of China to account. He founded a media company and began publishing Next Magazine, which from the outset criticised Beijing’s leaders. It combined tabloid sensationalism with hard-hitting political and business reporting, and its readership quickly grew.
In 1995, as the handover of Hong Kong approached, he founded Apple Daily, a newspaper start-up. Circulation grew to 400,000 by 1997, making it the territory’s second largest amongst 60 newspapers, and the largest independent, non-State media publication. Jimmy Lai made clear that he was launching the newspaper to protect freedom of speech in Hong Kong, and it had an unashamed prodemocracy, anti-corruption agenda.
In addition to being a media owner, Jimmy Lai became a key figure in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. He also converted to Catholicism, and his faith has underpinned much of his work and drives him.
Since 1990 when he first launched his media business, Jimmy Lai has been repeatedly targeted by the Hong Kong authorities – due to his political opinions and his status as a high-profile pro-democracy advocate and media owner. He has been targeted in many ways for decades, including through attacks on his business, threats to advertisers and fire-bombing of his home and offices with impunity.
However, matters took a turn for the worse with the pro-democracy protests in 2019-2020, and the introduction of the controversial National Security Law (“NSL”) in 2020. The NSL was imposed by Beijing upon Hong Kong, and has been widely condemned by human rights groups, the UN, the EU, the US Government and the UK Government, amongst many others. It effectively criminalises dissent and criminalises engaging with “foreign agents” on human rights issues. For the past four years, Jimmy Lai has been targeted by the authorities using a new weapon: criminal law. He has faced a barrage of criminal prosecutions, including for his participation in peaceful protests and under the NSLin relation to various Apple Daily publications.
In August 2020, Jimmy Lai was arrested. He was released on bail but imprisoned again in December 2020. Since December 2020, he has been detained and imprisoned in a maximum-security prison in Hong Kong.
Mr. Lai was prosecuted in four separate sets of criminal proceedings arising from his peaceful participation in the high-profile pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020, organised by civil liberties groups. In 2021 Mr. Lai was convicted in all four cases and he has served lengthy sentences of imprisonment, which he eventually completed in September 2022. These convictions and sentences have been heavily criticized, including by UN experts, the EU and the US Government.
He has also faced a spurious prosecution for fraud involving the alleged breach of the terms of the lease of the Apple Daily premises, which resulted in his conviction in October 2022. He was then sentenced in December 2022 to 5 years and 9 months’ imprisonment. The prosecution, verdict and sentence were condemned by the United States’ Government and civil society. In response to Mr. Lai’s sentence, Ned Price, spokesperson for the State Department, stated that: “The United Statescondemns the grossly unjust outcome of Jimmy Lai’s latest trial sentencing. By any objective measure, this result is neither fair nor just”, and called upon China to respect freedom of expression, including for the press, in Hong Kong. The US Government has described the charges against Mr. Lai asspurious and has further expressed its ongoing deep concern, “about the deterioration in the protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the systematic dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomy under the National Security Law (NSL)”, and the efforts by the Hong Kongauthorities to use the NSL to “suppress independent media, to silence dissenting views, and to silence freedom of speech.”
Jimmy Lai now awaits trial on the most serious charges of all, for alleged sedition and offences under the NSL, said to arise out of his journalism and pro-democracy publications and campaigns by Apple Daily. The trial is due to take place starting on 18th December 2023. If convicted, Jimmy Lai may receive a life sentence and die behind bars – for his work as a peaceful pro-democracy campaigner, a writer and media owner.