By Chris Patten
December 19, 2022
The ongoing persecution of Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai is the most striking example of the authorities’ unprecedented campaign against press freedom. For democracy to prevail, people like Lai, who could spend the rest of his life behind bars, must not be forgotten.
HONG KONG – When it comes to China’s attitude toward the free world, Hong Kong has long been considered a canary in the coal mine. The Chinese government’s treatment of the territory is a good indicator of how the Communist Party of China (CPC) might engage with non-totalitarian countries. How Western governments respond to China’s recent actions may also be a reliable measure of the vitality and sustainability of liberal democracy as a model of governance.
As Hong Kong increasingly targets dissidents and shreds the freedoms that once defined it, a small chorus of Quislings will surely pretend that nothing has changed and nothing is amiss. Others may even claim that Hong Kong is freer today than it ever was. Hong Kong’s CPC-approved chief executive, John Lee, claimed recently that “press freedom is in our pocket.” Whose pocket Lee was referring to was left unsaid. In fact, Hong Kong’s press is not in anyone’s pocket, but rather in a CPC-designed cage.
The 2020 national-security law effectively curtailed press freedom, and the list of journalists targeted by Lee’s puppet regime has grown by the month. The Trust Project, an international consortium of news organizations that promotes transparency and accountability in media, halted its Hong Kong operations in November, citing an “increasingly difficult environment for news organizations to operate freely and independently.” Over the past few months, several journalists have been arrested, and others have been threatened. Ronson Chan, the chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, was arrested in September while reporting a story and charged with obstruction merely for doing his job. With journalists regularly incarcerated and newspapers gutted or closed down, it is hardly a surprise that public trust in the media has declined.
But the most striking and terrifying example of the authorities’ unprecedented attack on press freedom is the persecution of Jimmy Lai. A media tycoon and world-famous pro-democracy activist, Lai was sentenced to 13 months in prison last year for attending an unauthorized vigil for the victims of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. This month, he received an additional sentence of five years and nine months.
Lai, who has already been jailed for more than two years for taking part in peaceful protests, was convicted of what the US State Department has described as “spurious fraud charges.” Ironically, his sentencing took place on December 10, Human Rights Day. Lee’s government and the judges hand-picked to do its bidding do not seem to care about the difference between civil and criminal law, much less about human rights.
Lai has been harassed and persecuted because he represents so much of what Beijing hates. Born in China 75 years ago, Lai escaped communism and its calamitous failures when he was smuggled into Hong Kong at the age of 12. Shocked by the massacre at Tiananmen Square, he became an outspoken advocate of freedom and democracy, unafraid to call out the CPC and always prepared to stand up for Hong Kong’s liberties. His newspaper Apple Daily, which he founded in 1995, was a beacon of democracy and Hong Kong’s second most-read publication until its forced closure in 2021. A Chinese refugee who prospered in Hong Kong’s free society and stood up for the community that enabled his success, rather than leave, was more than the regime could bear.
But, in a new twist, Hong Kong has appealed to the Chinese government to overturn an earlier court decision that allowed Lai to be represented by a British lawyer. In the appeal, Lee argued that foreign lawyers cannot be trusted because they could be pressured to follow their countries’ instructions regarding sensitive cases.
What Lee neglected to mention is that foreign-born judges already sit on Hong Kong’s courts, including its highest – the Court of Final Appeal. Just in case the CPC rejected its appeal, Lee’s government refused to grant Lai’s British lawyer a visa to stay in Hong Kong. The episode serves as yet another reminder of how, step by step, Chinese communism is demolishing due process and the rule of law.
Some are still willing to denounce the unjust imprisonment of democracy advocates such as Lai. But, sadly, some expatriates working in Hong Kong find it more convenient to look the other way. They are prepared to tolerate the oppressive tactics that drive so many of Hong Kong’s citizens into exile, and some have gone out of their way to argue that everything is fine and that Hong Kong has not changed. The long-time supporters of the CPC in Hong Kong, the so-called United Front, at least have the excuse of actually believing that communism is the future. But what about those who toe the party line while holding foreign passports and healthy bank balances? Is their silence driven by greed, or by fear of government retribution?
Lai is not only a Chinese patriot who represents the best of his country and civilization; he is also a British citizen. Even though he holds a UK passport, Lai did not take his millions and run. Instead, Lai, a devout Catholic, will spend Christmas in a cell in the maximum-security Stanley Prison; and if Beijing gets its way, that is where he will spend his remaining Christmases. For liberal democracy to prevail over authoritarianism, people with Lai’s courage and convictions must not be forgotten. Their fate – freedom or tyranny – is ours.