The fashion and media mogul remains in prison for asking for democracy. Attorney Mark A. Tarrant has launched a creative campaign to protest his detention.
By Marco Respinti
October 18, 2023
Putting up the poster “Jimmy Lai Behind Bars” in Sydney.
September 24, 2023, marked 1,000 days in prison for Jimmy Lai. The fashion and media mogul, a Roman Catholic who was born in Hong Kong 75 years ago, has been detained for so long in Stanley Prison, one of the six maximum security facilities in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As a matter of fact, he has been in and out of jail several times at the order of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which now openly and tyrannically rules also the former British colony. Lai is guilty of one fault only: a supporter of democracy, he stands for freedom of expression with his courage, initiatives, and money.
Lai’s life changed on June 4, 1989, when the CCP ordered the massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. From that moment, Lai sided publicly with pro-democracy protesters, especially in his native city. In 1995 he founded the “Apple Daily,” a pro-freedom paper and online journal published in Mandarin Chinese, with an online digest edition in English, which soon became an important bastion of liberty. “Apple Daily” ended its intrepid adventure on June 24, 2021, when it could no longer resist the aggressions of the pro-PRC police force. Its offices had in fact been attacked several times by thugs. The police raided them too. And its journalists were repeatedly intimidated.
In the meantime, Lai, the publisher, suffered continuous false accusations of sedition that eventually brought him under arrest several times. He had already got into trouble for supporting the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” in Hong Kong (the nickname came from the fact that pro-democracy protesters had only yellow umbrellas to protect themselves from the police tear-gas) as well as the new 2019‒2020 protests against the liberty-killing law bills proposed by the puppet Hong Kong government. And when that puppet government was officially overstepped on June 30, 2020, by the National People’s Congress in Beijing, which imposed the notorious new security law in Taiwan, Lai became its first VIP victim.
When his term in prison, merely for his opinions, turned 1,000 days, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and 10 press freedom and human rights groups, wrote to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak asking for immediate and decisive action on his behalf. The Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, a coalition of 67 organizations, did the same by writing to US president Joe Biden. But a man in Australia is carrying on an original and tireless campaign of solidarity in a world that, apart from a few dedicated and hardcore defenders of justice, seems not to care about Lai, cynically considering Hong Kong another dead issue not to bother about anymore.
Mark A. Tarrant, a lawyer in Sydney who grew up in Hong Kong, thinks that abandoning Lai means surrendering to evil, and says it in so many words in the streets. He designed and commissioned a life-size neon sign “Jimmy Lai in Chains” that Melbourne neon artist Steven Cole produced in his workshop.
The neon sign “Jimmy Lai in Chains.”
He also co-designed with Sydney graphic designer Michael Davies a silk screen print of a poster of “Jimmy Lai Behind Bars.” Tarrant posted it along Melbourne and Sydney Commercial Business District (CBD) streets in late September to mark Lai’s 1,000 days of incarceration in Hong Kong. Starting on the evening of the 14th, local time, the neon sign was displayed at the Sydney Town Hall public space in what became an event. “We handed out apples in a nod to the ‘Apple Daily,’” Tarrant told “Bitter Winter.” “We had a violinist play ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ and the main theme from ‘In the Mood for Love.’” This is a 2000 romantic drama film written, produced, and directed in Hong Kong and France by director Wong Kar-Wai, who was born in Shanghai, but emigrated to at-that-time British Hong Kong at a very early age.
The event at the Sydney Town Hall was all filmed and, Tarrant explains, will become “a short film (around 15-20 mins). We will submit it to film festivals and hopefully have it catalogued by the US Library of Congress.” Until October 14, the sign was on display at a Sydney City Council-owned shop in Pitt Street, Sydney CBD, which Tarrant said, “the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, generously allowed us to use.”
Support messages left on the back of the neon sign exhibited at the Sydney Town Hall.
After the public display ends, the sign will be stored at Tarrant’s office, who welcomes people to visit and see it. “In 2025 the neon sign will be exhibited at the Lane Cove Gallery + Creative Studio, a not-for-profit art center located in the heart of Lane Cove, a suburb on the Lower North Shore of Sydney,” he added. “This will help generate additional public awareness of Jimmy Lai, Hong Kong’s prisoner of conscience.” All the pictures in this article were taken by Tarrant, who provided them to “Bitter Winter” to use. A 5-minutes film on the neon sign, that he produced and directed, was released on “The Points” website, an overseas media company that publishes in Chinese, on October 2.
Yes, we all know that curiosity killed the cat, but indifference kills people, both physically and metaphorically, every single day, when it surrenders to despots, aggressors, and villains. This is why the world needs 10, 100, 1000 Tarrants: to avoid that 10, 100, 1000 Lais might be swallowed into a complicit oblivion.