The showtrial of Jimmy Lai
British citizens in Hong Kong are facing the wrath of the CCP.
In 2016, Hong Kong’s jails had zero political prisoners. As of this year, they now hold over 1,500. One of the most high-profile of these prisoners is British citizen Jimmy Lai.
This week, after over three years in jail, Lai finally found himself in a Hong Kong courtroom, standing trial for treason. To many, he is a pro-democracy hero. In the eyes of Beijing, he is a ‘notorious anti-China element’.
Lai was born in 1947 in Guangzhou in southern China to a wealthy family who lost everything under Communism. As a 12-year-old boy, Lai stowed away on a fishing boat and sought refuge in Hong Kong, which was then under British rule.
Lai worked as a labourer during his teenage years, before rising up the ranks to become a factory manager. He then moved into the clothing industry and eventually became the owner of one of the largest fashion retailers in Asia. But the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 changed everything for Lai. Outraged, he swapped the clothing business for politics and journalism. In 1995, he launched Apple Daily, which was to become Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy newspaper.
The paper’s editorial stance was bold, voicing the concerns of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy majority. Millions participated, including Lai, in an intense series of anti-authoritarian protests in 2003, 2014 and 2019, marching in support of freedom against growing Chinese interference in Hong Kong. They were increasingly met with brutal police crackdowns, before, in 2020, the Chinese state’s strict Covid-19 restrictions put a stop to any major uprisings.
In July that same year, Beijing exacted retribution for Hong Kong’s years of rebellion in the shape of the so-called National Security Law (NSL). This gave jurisdiction to Chinese courts and police to act inside Hong Kong with impunity. It also criminalised opposition to the Chinese government with numerous vaguely defined ‘crimes’ that carry huge custodial sentences.
It is under the NSL that Lai was arrested in 2021, and charged with ‘foreign collusion’ and organising ‘illegal’ protests. His true crime in the eyes of Beijing, of course, was his promotion of civil liberties and democratic rights.
After a string of delays and almost 1,100 days in detention, his trial began at the West Kowloon Law Courts in Hong Kong on Monday. There is no hope of a fair hearing. Trials for those charged under the NSL have a 100 per cent conviction rate. His fate will be decided by a panel of ‘approved’ judges rather than a jury of his peers.
Lai’s sham trial is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party’s devastating assault on civil liberties. Although the CCP claims to be fighting ‘capitalist overreach’, tellingly its assault on freedom has ruthlessly targeted organised labour. In October 2021, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), which represented over 160,000 employees, ‘voted’ to dissolve itself, after its leaders were arrested for participating in the 2019 pro-democracy protests.
UK foreign secretary David Cameron sent a powerful message by meeting with Lai’s son, Sebastien, last week. It ought to be a cause for national embarrassment that Cameron’s predecessors could barely bring themselves to mention Lai’s name, never mind admit that he is a British citizen. But Cameron’s intervention counts for little if it is not followed up with concrete action to help British citizens.
So far, over 135,000 Hong Kongers have migrated to the UK under the British National (Overseas) visa scheme. Many of them are fleeing the increasingly hostile authorities in Hong Kong. But even when they arrive here they are not entirely safe from the CCP’s reach. Last year, staff at the Chinese consulate in Manchester dragged peaceful Hong Kong protesters on to consulate grounds and beat them.
Clearly, the British government must do far more to stand up for its own citizens in the face of the CCP’s persecution. We cannot just abandon them to their fate.
Georgia Leigha Gilholy is the media and communications manager, UK and Ireland, at the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation.
Picture by: Getty.
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