In an interview with ProMarket, Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai discussed his legal troubles, the roots of his political activism, and the negative impact that he believes Hong Kong’s new national security law has already had on the life of Hong Kongers.
Editor’s note: This article is part of our ongoing debate on the impact of China’s new national security law on the freedom of expression in Hong Kong and everywhere in the world. Read previous articles in this series here.
Earlier this month, Hong Kong police raided the private offices of Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon and one of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists. The raid took place two months after Lai himself was arrested in August, along with his two sons and several other activists and executives from his media company, Next Digital, for allegedly violating Hong Kong’s new national security law.
Lai’s arrest caused a global uproar, with images of him arrested in his home and led away in handcuffs by police officers plastered across news outlets worldwide. The arrest was seen as “an extraordinary show of force,” with 200 officers raiding the newsroom of Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper Lai founded in 1995. (Lai was released on bail two days later).
Lai, who was born in the Chinese city of Guangzhou and was smuggled into Hong Kong on a fishing boat when he was 12, was a clothing mogul before venturing into the media business. Inspired by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, he has become one of the leading figures in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement over the last three decades and a fierce critic of Beijing. He regularly meets with senior American officials and his political activism has made him a frequent target of Beijing (The CCP’s English-language newspaper, Global Times, called him a “force of evil”), subject to arrests, threats, and other sanctions.
Earlier this year, the Stigler Center and ProMarket launched an article and webinar series to facilitate conversations among leading scholars and experts about the implications of Hong Kong’s national security law for US-China relations and for the freedom of expression, both in Hong Kong and worldwide. Ahead of his Stigler Center webinar, we recently interviewed Lai about the recent developments in Hong Kong and his views on the new national security law. In his ProMarket interview (which took place before the most recent raid on his offices), Lai discussed his legal troubles, the roots of his political activism, and the negative impact that he believes the new law has already had on Hong Kongers’ lives.
[The following conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.]
Q: Let’s begin with your current legal situation. You were recently cleared of a criminal intimidation charge related to an incident in 2017 with a photographer, and that’s under appeal. You were arrested in August in relation to the new national security law and are now out on bail. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but you may face several charges related to last year’s protests as well, right?
Right. I got three charges and one recent allegation—it’s not a charge yet—of deception, where I used my media premises as the correspondence address for other companies. The second is sedition, which is under the common law. The third is collusion with a foreign power, which is under the national security law, but they haven’t charged me yet.
I extended my bail two weeks ago, and I will have to go to the police station again on December 1st. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Q: So you are currently awaiting charges?
Q: You called your arrest last month a “symbolic exercise.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
When I was arrested, our media building was also raided by about 200 police. The whole exercise is to intimidate the media companies in Hong Kong to make sure that nobody dares to deviate from what the government wants.
My arrest is also, in a way, an intimidation of the people of the resistance movement. That’s my speculation, but that’s how the city and the people reacted to my arrest and to the raid of my media company.
Q: The national security law went into effect almost four months ago. How would you say daily life in Hong Kong has been affected by it?
The national security law has been very effective [in] intimidating the whole city. Many of the people involved with the movement have left or are trying to leave. Many of them side-step it. Those who are still staying and resisting are almost the backbone of the movement.
People are panicked. If you checked the big data, the [top] topic on Google search and social media is immigration. The national security law’s clampdown on us has been very successful.
Q: How has that changed the way that you personally or Apple Daily are conducting yourselves? Has it changed anything about your behavior or the operation of Apple Daily?
I tell my reporters that nobody has a claim on them to be a martyr. When they work, when they write, when they speak, they have to think about their security, listen to the call of their conscience, and think about the obligation we have to society. If all these are thought about, they do whatever is suitable for them to do. I’m not asking them to do anything otherwise.
We stopped printing posters to urge people to demonstrations. That’s the only thing we changed. We will just do whatever we have been doing and wait until the day that we are clamped down. We can’t change. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we have to go on.
Q: If you are indicted and convicted, it has been suggested that you may face the rest of your life behind bars. Is that something that you see as a real possibility? Is that something that you’re worried about?
It’s definitely a possibility, but it’s not something I worry about. If I worried, I wouldn’t accept your interview. It’s nothing to worry about: If I let fear frighten me, I would not be able to say anything or do anything. I will be just a yo-yo [laughs].
I have to go on. If I’m arrested, or put in jail, that is fine. This place has been wonderful for me. I came here when I was 12, and now I’m 73. I have all that I have because of this place. If this is the time to pay back, it’s the redemption of my life. I’m grateful for this opportunity to redeem my life, [which] I’m very grateful for.
Q: You are a rare figure in Hong Kong’s business world in that you are so outspoken against these actions by China. What is the atmosphere within the business world of Hong Kong toward these new measures?
What they can do—and what a lot of them are doing—is planning to move their business elsewhere. A poll indicated that 30 percent of the business leaders are planning to move their business elsewhere, and 40 percent are planning to emigrate.
A lot of them are still making money. A lot of them, because [of] the Western interests they have, have to wait and see. But definitely, they are not investing again in this place. Without the rule of law, business people will not have protection, except to bribe the officials who have power over them to have protection.
Hong Kong will eventually be like China, plagued by corruption. I don’t know how long those business people can hold on doing business here. Definitely, a lot of them are thinking of leaving after they have made the last of the money they’ll make here. I don’t see this place revived again, no matter what the government says.
Q: Is it possible that some, if not many, of the business elite in Hong Kong have either gotten where they are thanks to—or are enjoying—close connections to China, and therefore might be OK with these new measures?
I’m sure a lot of them made a lot of money because they have a good connection with China, but it doesn’t mean that they trust the Chinese. They have allegiance towards the Chinese. They have to protect themselves. Even those guys have to plan for their future. Even the richest man, Li Ka-shing, has retreated and sold a lot of his property assets in Hong Kong.
A lot of businessmen had connections with officials in China [that] gave them the opportunity to make money, but also gave them the opportunity to know the truth more than other people. So actually, they are more afraid than people who don’t know as much as they do.
Q: What do you think the national security law tells us about China’s intentions under Xi Jinping?
I think the national security law definitely is absurd. It totally killed Hong Kong. It shows that Xi Jinping is somebody who really doesn’t care. The only thing he cares [about] is to suppress, to make sure that Hong Kong’s people will be subservient to the Chinese dictate.
Last year, the whole year we had demonstrations. Some of the young people had some violent encounters with the police and all that. They never looked at the problem: why Hong Kong people came out in 2 million to protest. The only solution they think of is just to clamp down, just to suppress.
The national security law shows that first, the CCP, they don’t respect the rule of law. They don’t respect the Basic Law that they signed with England.
And I think the world knows about this. Hong Kong has manifested the true face of CCP to the world. That’s why we have such a strong response in support of us internationally.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong here, but you are not a supporter of independence for Hong Kong, right?
I’m not. I’m not. This is a conspiracy theory. I always thought this is ridiculous. How can you have independence when [the] CCP can come and finish you off in three hours? I think that was started by somebody who [is] pro-China to create an excuse for the CCP to clamp down on us. I don’t think this claim of independence is legitimate.
Q: What is your goal? What are you hoping to achieve with your political activity, with this interview, with talking to decision-makers and policymakers worldwide?
I want the world to know what’s happening here. We share the same values with the free world, with the Western world—that they will feel what we feel because they have a great resonance with what we are doing here. If they feel our pain, they will voice out for us. Their voice is a very powerful protection for us.
Whether we can achieve anything is beside the point. The point is, we cannot stand down [and] not fight injustice, not fight evil. Whether we accomplish what we want to accomplish is beside the point. It is whether somebody who has dignity would stand up [for] his own integrity. That is more important.
Q: You previously praised President Trump, saying that you believe he understands China more than any other president.
At least he’s the only president who deals with China most effectively. Now, because of his dealing with China, the whole world has woken up to what CCP is. He plays hardball with CCP, which is the right way. Other presidents, they tried to play gentlemen, and this doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for the last 20-25 years.
Now is a time for the world to understand that President Trump’s way of dealing with China is the correct way. The world realizes this also. You can see that European countries are slowly etching towards President Trump’s policy towards China and align with him because they realize that the bad behavior of CCP is so detrimental to daily life, to trade, to world peace. Being alone, they don’t have leverage against China. They know that they have to align together as the Western world to deal with China. All they want is not to get the CCP out of the planet, [but] for CCP to assimilate to the international values, so that the dealing [between] CCP with the world will be peaceful and beneficial.
All we want is for CCP to change [its] behavior. I think the only way is if the West and the free world align together to coerce China to face the reality that there’s only one system: the system of the Western civilization, which has evolved the institutions that safeguard [the] peace, safety, and freedom that we are now enjoying.
They cannot change the rule of the world, because it is the result of evolution. The CCP’s way of dealing [with] things is dictatorial and man-made. They can’t change something [that] is an evolution of history.
Q: When you say that President Trump’s policy towards China has been effective, you mean his tariffs and trade war, correct?
Yeah, I think the trade war is the result of the conflict of values.
Q: Why do you see it as effective?
I think it’s effective because, first, it wakes up the whole world to [how to] deal with China. Second, if we don’t deal with China now, when China gets even stronger, there is no way we are going to deal with China but to accept the way that they deal with the world.
I think it’s about time the world wakes up to the fact that we have to change the attitude and behavior of China if you want peace in [the] future.
Q: Do you feel the beginning of a change in the way the world—not just the US, you also mentioned Europe—is treating China?
I think so. I think the pandemic has been a Pearl Harbor to the world, [waking] up the world to the true face of CCP. The deception, the cover-up, the irresponsibility it showed [for] the world at large. I think Hong Kong just galvanized the problem between the West and CCP.
Q: The past two years have seen huge demonstrations in Hong Kong. That would obviously be much harder to do now, with the new law. How do you see the pro-democracy movement evolving, now that the law is in effect? Do you think the protests will wind down, or perhaps people will still go out into the streets en masse?
I think some of the people still go out in a small group, but I think they will take a very creative way to protest and resist. For instance, when I was arrested, when our media was raided by the police, that day we sold more than half a million copies—usually, we sell 125,000. People jacked up our stock just to protest and show support for us. This is a different way to protest and support. I think people will use different ways to protest—the last time two legislators were arrested, the next day, people wore black to go out on the streets. They didn’t go out together. They just carried their lives as normal, but a lot of them wore black. That’s the sign of protest. There will be creative ways of sending the signal to protest.
Q: You started Apple Daily in 1995. Did you always envision it as an advocate for democracy in Hong Kong?
Yes. I was inspired by the June 4th Massacre, and I thought that the movement will bring China to liberalization. I was at that time 40 years old, and I thought that will be a great business to go into delivering information, because information is freedom and if China is to liberate or be more liberal, that is a wonderful world for a young businessman who has made money to be in. Of course, I’ve been wrong, but I haven’t been wrong in choosing this business. That has made my life a lot more meaningful.
Q: You mentioned that you used to believe that China would eventually become more democratic, or a democracy. I think that was a very common view, especially in the 1990s and the 1980s. People believed that in China, liberalization and economic freedom would lead to political freedom, that China would ultimately become something closer to a liberal democracy. Obviously, China went in a different direction since then. How do you explain that? What do you think went wrong?
Actually, it did not go wrong for CCP. That’s the way they always looked at the world. That’s the way they’ve always managed the country. That’s the way they always managed their regime. The world has been wrong to think that when China gets richer, [it] will be more like them.
But it doesn’t mean that China will not change, eventually. I don’t believe that China can reverse the liberalization of the world. It’s just that Xi Jinping is the wrong guy to lead it. I don’t think that Xi Jinping, [who] now wants to bring China back to the Mao Zedong era, will be successful, or that Xi Jinping’s approach to the world will not have greater and greater resistance. If [there’s] resistance of the people and the world against Xi Jinping, I don’t think Xi Jinping can sit on his throne for very long.
If Xi Jinping steps down, I think the CCP would have to revise [its] policy to assimilate to the world, because if China becomes an island, China will be backward, China will be poor, China will be nothing. It’s like in the 15th century, when Zheng He returned from his boat trip to China and told the emperor the outside world was barbaric. The emperor just closed the door of China and from then on, China has been backward until 40 years ago—until Deng Xiaoping reopened China to the world again and it became prosperous again.
This lesson, if Xi Jinping hasn’t learned, I think the other CCP officials should have learned. I don’t think they would allow him to go on the way that he’s leading China.
Q: It seems that China is betting on another scenario, one in which economic liberalism, like Hong Kong’s, can coexist with consolidation of political power. You don’t see this as sustainable, I understand.
No, it’s not sustainable, because the conflict of values will create mayhem. Why [is] the world today—not just the US, the European countries, Japan, and all that— against China or turning against China? Just because they feel China’s behavior in dealing with them is intolerable.
Q: You praised President Trump before. President Trump has also ended Hong Kong’s special relationship with the US, which you were opposed to. What do you think the future holds for the relationship between the US and China?
I first opposed it because I did not think through it, but I think now that Mr. Trump revoking Hong Kong’s special status has been the right decision.
Take one example: Now, the US sanctions all the technology, or [technological] parts, or information, or personnel [going] to China, which also will bring [about] the alliance of the Western countries. You can’t go against the US as long as technology is concerned.
If there’s no more technology, or information, or parts [that] go into China, China’s development of technology will have a big problem. The development of technology is not an isolated experiment. It needs complementary technologies to support it, to test it. If all technology from the outside world stops going into China, that will be a great blow to the economy’s development.
Nowadays, without technological advancement, economic advancement is very difficult. So I think that now, without Hong Kong as a way for the CCP to get outside technology, and people, and information, and all that into China, China is totally shut out from the world. That will be very detrimental to the Chinese economy.
Q: Are you optimistic that this would happen, that the world will indeed shut out China and not acquiesce to China and continue to do business with it?
It’s happening already. You see the reaction of European countries to Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip there. People were very angry about his way of reproaching other countries like they are the subsidiaries.
People get so angry, people get so annoyed about China’s behavior. It’s the people, not just the politicians—politicians can change, but the people, after the pandemic, have suffered so much that their resentment against China will be the source of politics for the politicians to follow. This is the most fatal aspect of CCP facing the world: the changing mentality of the people of the world against China.