top of page

World watches as landmark Jimmy Lai trial set to begin in Hong Kong

Territory’s global reputation on the line as media mogul and democracy activist finally tried over alleged national security crimes

By Amy Hawkins Senior China correspondent

December 17, 2023

Hong Kong’s global reputation will be tested this week when the long-delayed trial of the pro-democracy activist and former media mogul Jimmy Lai gets under way.

Lai, who turned 76 in jail this month, is charged with colluding with foreign forces under the national security law, as well as sedition. If convicted, which experts say is highly likely, the British national faces spending the rest of his life in prison.

The trial starts on Monday, two weeks after another landmark hearing came to an end on 4 December. The Hong Kong 47 mass trial of pro-democracy activists was the biggest national security law case since the legislation was implemented in Hong Kong in June 2020, quelling a year of protests against the tightening grip of the Chinese Communist party on the city. Lai’s trial has just one defendant. But it will be just as, if not more, significant for Hong Kong’s global standing.

Before his detention in December 2020 Lai was one of the territory’s most powerful critics of the CCP. He was the founder of the now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and was often on the frontlines of Umbrella Movement protests in in 2014 and in the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019.

In August 2020 he was arrested and later charged with the national security law violations as well other offences, in proceedings the British government has described as “highly politicised”.

On Tuesday Lai’s son Sebastien Lai met David Cameron, the UK foreign secretary, to discuss his father’s case. Cameron is the first foreign secretary to meet with Lai’s family since he was detained in 2020.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: “Jimmy Lai’s case is a priority for the UK. We have raised his case on multiple occasions with the Chinese Government, most recently when the foreign secretary spoke to foreign minister Wang Yi last week.

“Mr Lai’s prosecution is highly politicised – he and others are being deliberately targeted to silence criticism under the guise of national security.”

The British government has been criticised for not explicitly calling for Lai’s release. The EU parliament has urged the Hong Kong government to “unconditionally release and drop all charges” against him. On Tuesday the Canadian House of Commons also passed a motion calling for his release.

Sebastien Lai said he was “grateful” for the meeting with Cameron: “I feel reassured to have heard directly from the foreign secretary that my dad’s case is a priority for the UK government. I understand why Lord Cameron was unable to make any immediate commitments, but I left the meeting feeling hopeful that the UK will shortly add its voice to calls for my dad’s immediate and unconditional release.”

After the meeting the Chinese embassy in London condemned what it described as the UK’s “egregious interference in the rule of law” in Hong Kong. A spokesperson accused Lai of “various sinful deeds” and said his prosecution was “lawful, legitimate and justified”.

Lai’s trial is expected to run until spring 2024, with a verdict expected in autumn. It will be presided over by a panel of judges handpicked by the Hong Kong chief executive to handle national security cases.

Elaine Pearson, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said: “Lai’s trial has been marred by serious violations of fair trial rights such as denying him a lawyer of his own choosing and handpicking judges. Beijing seems intent on imprisoning one of its most powerful critics for many years, possibly for the rest of his life.”

In May Hong Kong’s legislature passed an amendment allowing the chief executive to block foreign lawyers from acting in national security cases. That authority was used to block Lai’s preferred lawyer, the top British barrister Timothy Owen KC, from representing him. Lai’s legal team is appealing but the hearing is expected to take place after the trial has concluded.

A spokesperson for the Hong Kong judiciary would not comment on individual cases but said judges “exercise their judicial power independently and professionally in every case (including cases relating to national security) strictly on the basis of the law and evidence, and nothing else.”

The trial, which is being held in open court, will be an opportunity to attract public attention to his case, even if the verdict is considered to be a foregone conclusion.

In November the security minister, Chris Tang, said the trial would allow the public to see how “bad” Lai’s alleged offences are. Tang has previously praised the 100% conviction rate in national security cases.

Fiona O’Brien, the UK bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, said: “This is no time for equivocation: if the UK government really believes in press freedom – as it says it does – it cannot stand silently by while a British citizen is condemned to die in jail because of what he published.”

Hello to you, dear reader from Italy!

When the former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha delivered his New Year message back in 1967, he pulled the cord marked “truth bomb”. “This year will be harder than last year,” he declared. “It will, however, be easier than next year.” I mean … on the one hand: thanks for not sugar-coating it, Enver. On the other: way to kill the party buzz, you monster!

I don’t want to murder the atmosphere (or indeed any dissidents) by reminding you of the news year you’ve just lived through – or by warning you of the news year you’re about to live through. It’s not big, it’s not clever, and it’s sure as heck not seasonal.

But I will say, pointedly, that our reporting feels particularly necessary in dark times. If you can, please help support the Guardian on a monthly basis from just €2, so as to keep it open for everyone. I can’t tell you how much it would be appreciated. A free press is needed now as much as it has ever been – and on some days, more than it has ever been.

In return for this support, I am formally* bestowing upon you the right to refer to yourself – in conversation, in the pub, and on any business cards you may care to have printed up – as “a newspaper baron”. Face it: if you pay to support a news organisation, then you ARE to all intents and purposes a newspaper baron. Just enjoy it! All the others do.

With that, it simply remains is for me to wish you a very happy holidays, and a splendid new year. Goodness knows you’ve earned it.


bottom of page