Trial of Apple Daily tycoon a ‘test’ for Hong Kong’s freedoms: son

TAIPEI – The trial of Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media tycoon jailed for national security crimes, will serve as a “litmus test” for how China views the freedoms of semi-autonomous Hong Kong, his son told AFP in an interview.

The 75-year-old British citizen and founder of the now-shuttered tabloid Apple Daily has been behind bars in Hong Kong since 2020, awaiting trial for alleged “collusion with foreign forces”.

Initially scheduled to start a year earlier, Jimmy Lai’s trial has been twice postponed and is now slated for December 18.

He was also denied his choice of legal representation, London-based lawyer Tim Owen.

In an interview in Taipei, his son Sebastien Lai said the postponements and other legal obstacles made it clear that “it’s a kangaroo court”. 

“My father’s case is… an opportunity for Hong Kong to show whether they are actually rule-of-law compliant, whether they respect all the values they say they respect,” said the 29-year-old.

The world “should be paying attention to my father’s case, to the case of Hong Kong”, he said.

“Hong Kong has always been a litmus test for how China views the world and how they view the liberties that we have in the free world. Now my father stood really at the front of that.” 

“He’s a man who decided to sacrifice everything that he has for these ideals of freedom… so how the Hong Kong government treats my father is how the whole government views these freedoms.”

While awaiting trial for collusion, Jimmy Lai has been sentenced for attending four pro-democracy protests and for an additional charge of “fraud” — convictions that together came with sentences of more than seven years. 

The Hong Kong government in March hit out at Sebastien Lai for bringing his father’s case to the United Nations, calling it “foreign interference” with the city’s judicial proceedings.

Rags to riches

If convicted, Jimmy Lai — who will turn 76 in December — faces up to life in prison under a national security law Beijing imposed on the financial hub in 2020. 

The law’s aim was to quash dissent following massive, and at times violent, pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019, which brought hundreds of thousands to the streets to demand greater freedoms for the semi-autonomous city. 

In the three years since the law’s passage, prominent opposition lawmakers and democracy activists have either been jailed or fled abroad, and the city’s once-vibrant civil society is now a shadow of its former self. 

“I think he’d be very heartbroken (by the current state of Hong Kong),” Sebastien Lai said. 

“But Dad always looks forward.”

Born in mainland China, Jimmy Lai was smuggled into Hong Kong at the age of 12 and worked in sweatshops before he founded a hugely successful clothing empire. 

He started Apple Daily in 1995, a tabloid that mixed heady sensationalism with hard-hitting political reportage.

An early ad for Apple Daily — one of many yellowed clippings Sebastien Lai has saved in his Taipei home — showed Jimmy Lai perched on a motorcycle and beaming as he held up the crimson fruit. 

The paper openly backed Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in 2019, and Jimmy Lai was labelled a “traitor” by China’s state media. 

Six staff members were also detained and pleaded guilty to collusion. 

They face possible life imprisonment under the security law.

‘Oldest political prisoner’

Today, Jimmy Lai is “the oldest political prisoner in Hong Kong”, said Sebastien Lai, adding that Britain has yet to call for his father’s release. 

“It’s so important that they do that because my father is a British citizen… he has fought to uphold the promise that the UK and China made to the people of Hong Kong during the handover,” he said. 

Showing off an old photo enclosed in a faded Disney frame of his father gazing at him, Sebastien Lai said his father “always let us pursue whatever we wanted to pursue”.

“I have to be optimistic” about the upcoming trial, he told AFP. 

“This is a long fight, but it’s not one that I would shy away from.” – AFP