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Jimmy Lai: The only Hong Kong multimillionaire facing China

One of the ads used to introduce the newspaper to the world pointed out to Lai in the most blunt manner: She showed Lai in a dark warehouse with a red apple on her scalp, which was thrown with arrows that were of a shadowy shape were fired.

Since then, Lai's role as one of Hong Kong's best-known hustlers has threatened his fortunes, exposing him to death threats and making him a symbol of the city's tensions with mainland China.

When Great Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, the city was guaranteed its own legal system and certain democratic freedoms, and by 2047 it is likely to return to Beijing overall. In the past three months, millions have flooded the highways of Hong Kong in the run-up to Beijing's supposed intervention in these esteemed freedoms.

Apple Daily has become the largest official advocate of this movement in the city. The newspaper of the protesters. On its fierce front pages, the citizens gather to go out and march, it has given away posters to be hung up in demonstrations, and it regularly mocks the government for its failings.

In a tycoon city, Lai seems to be the only multimillionaire willing to risk his fortunes for Hong Kong's freedom. The 70-year-old is often seen on the marches, in pouring rain or blazing summer heat.

For his followers, Lai is a courageous democracy fighter. But his critics say that Lai and his muckraking publication are a black hand for the United States and cause chaos. In recent years, firebombs have been thrown in his home. An obituary claiming he died of AIDS was published in a rival publication, and Lai's political donations have put him into a fight against corruption. Lai denied misconduct and the lawsuit against him was eventually dropped.
  Jimmy Lai met with US Vice President Mike Pence in July 201[ads1]9.

It is undeniable that Lai maintains relations with the United States. Last month, he flew to Washington to discuss with US Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, how fundamental Hong Kong's freedom is for the US conflict with China.

"The (new) Cold War is actually a rivalry of competing values," says Lai, framing the current US-China trade war as a gap between democracy and authoritarianism. "We in Hong Kong are fighting for the common values ​​of the US against China, we are conducting their war in the enemy camp."

It is a battle for which Lai is ready to die.

Chinese Refugee

Lai had already lived an extraordinary life when he founded the Next Digital group in the 1980s, which owns the Apple Daily.

When China's famine struck mainland China in 1960, Lai smuggled out of the southern mainland province of Guangdong into Hong Kong at the bottom of a fishing boat. He came to the city at the age of 12 and was very dirty.

Lai says he has become a casual worker in a textile factory, earns 60 Hong Kong dollars ($ 7) a month and lives with 10 others in an apartment in the slum district of Sham Shui Po – still one of the most visited in Hong Kong impoverished districts.

  The Hollywood Knitwear Factory at Kwun Tong in the 1970s, when the textile industry in Hong Kong was booming.

On his first day, he remembers employees taking him away for breakfast. The liberation from "the fear of hunger" is overwhelming, says Lai. "This freedom was the first feeling I had in relation to Hong Kong and has never disappointed me," says Lai. "Never, until now."

After the Communists seized power in China in 1949, the population of Hong Kong grew by 1,000 people every day in the 1950s as Chinese migrants poured across the border. Most were "brave and entrepreneurial" survivors willing to take risks, Lai recalls. His twin sister was one of the so-called liberty swimmers who literally swam from China to the city. She became an important developer in Canada.

"Hong Kong was a land of opportunity," says Lai from that time.

Within two decades, Lai had learned English, worked his way up to the salesman in the factory, and decided to start his own retail line. On a trip to New York during the fabric season, he bought a pizza. On the napkin was the name Giordano.

It became the name of his hugely successful, casual men's clothing chain that made Lai his first luck.

"I was stupid enough to think that people would think that calling it Giordano is an Italian brand name," he says. It worked. In 1992, the group had 191 branches, produced 9 million garments a year and achieved sales of 1.6 billion Hong Kong dollars (211 million US dollars).
  On a rainy day in Hong Kong, March 22, 2005, shoppers pass through a Giordano retail store.

"He is a kind of legend in terms of business success," says Clement So, Associate Dean at the Journalism School in Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Not just for what he did in the news media, but for other industries as well."

Business was booming, but in the late 1980s, two things happened that affected the course of Lai's life.

First, on 4 June 1989, tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to disperse young demonstrators for democracy and change China forever. Estimates of the death toll range from several hundred to thousands.

Lai said he was not political at the time, "but I always had a strong yearning for freedom because of my experience in China."

Hong Kong was still under British rule, but plunged in 1997 to reunification with China. As the city watched the brutal repression of the Tiananmen, Giordano began to make T-shirts with student slogans.

About the same time, says Lai, he was divorced from his first wife. "I thought I was a very suitable guy," he says. "That was a shock to me."

Shortly thereafter, Lai was interviewed by local journalist Theresa Lai. The couple fell in love and married. Next he became media baron.

One apple a day

Today Lai lives in a white, closed house in a posh corner of Kowloon. Security staff is stationed outside the property. Paparazzi rivaling newspapers photograph all who go and enter, putting pressure on Lai's private life and looking for signs that he is meeting with US personalities.

Inside, melodious Chinese hwamei birds chirp in tall white cages. Dramatic artwork adorns the walls, while giant bromeliads and orchids brighten every corner. "I love flowers," says Lai with occasional clips of British upper-class accents, while enjoying breakfast with strawberries and egg sandwiches on porcelain plates.

The figure he makes at home, where he regularly hosts politicians, journalists, and influential figures discussing Hong Kong's democratic future – or not – contrasts sharply with his reputation as a cheeky, instinct-driven, ex-factory manager whose formal education ended in elementary school.

This public role began in 1994 when Lai published a glowing column in a magazine of his Next Digital group, in which Chinese Premier Li Peng, known as the "Butcher of Beijing" for his role in the suppression of Tiananmen, described "The son of a turtle ice with zero IQ" – a profoundly insulting bow in Chinese.
  Jimmy Lai with his Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper, which triggered a price war in 1995.

Beijing reacted then as it does today. It punished his clothing store.

According to Lai, Giordano's licenses were withdrawn in large parts of mainland China. In 1994, Lai sold his shares in the company, and the following year launched Apple Daily with a $ 100 million advertising campaign, two years before the British returned the city to China.

"It's my nature to be a rebel – to be a revolutionary," says Lai. "I express it in the economy, every time I'm in business, I do something different than the norm, so I was more successful than other people, I do not believe in gradual improvement."

He applied the mass market ethos of Giordano to his newspaper: it was cheap, populist and sensational. Visually modeled on USA Today, "it shook the media landscape in Hong Kong in a revolutionary way," says Clement So, deputy dean of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The newspaper did not care about balanced reporting: this was advocacy journalism with a heavy dose of cheeky celebrity gossip.

At kiosks, Lai unleashed a city-wide price war, virtually giving away the sensational title for two Hong Kong dollars (25 cents) the retailers charged for selling. "Other papers imitated quickly and without much success," says So. "The writing style, the use of large photos, the pagination, everything. There was a term called 'Apple-ization.'"

The newspaper became the city's most talked-about outlet – a reputation it has maintained for pioneering the Apple Extra platform, which animates the latest news events from murders to protests. The publication also met with great success in Taiwan, a self-governing Chinese democracy claiming Beijing as its own territory. "Apple Daily was very lucrative in the beginning," says Willy Lam, professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

According to the Forbes list, Lai had a value of 1.2 billion US dollars in 2008.
  Jimmy Lai protests during the 2014 Umbrella Movement for Democracy in Hong Kong.

"Nobody trusts the media, they do not trust the police, they do not trust the government," Tien says.

Societal fragmentation has been a topic of current unrest as demonstrators and police have been involved in a series of violent clashes reported from very different perspectives in the media.

Some Hong Kong residents support Beijing. Many are pro-democratic. Others describe themselves as a "blue ribbon," meaning they support the police. Followers of the movement and more liberal people call themselves a "yellow ribbon".

Many insist on calling themselves Hong Kong and not Chinese, in order to distinguish themselves from those who live beyond the border – the birthplace of many of their parents or grandparents.

For Lai, a Hong Kong is someone from a small Chinese island that shares the values ​​of the West. "This time, the Hong Kong identity … has surfaced much more in our consciousness," he says. "We identify as Hong Konger like never before."

A Black Hand for the USA

In early 2018, a 19-year-old resident of Hong Kong is said to have killed his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan and returned to the city before being arrested. There was nothing the Taiwanese police could do. Hong Kong had no extradition treaty with Taiwan or any Chinese territory.

In March 2019, Carrie Lam, the head of Hong Kong, proposed a solution: updating the city's refugee laws, which would allow criminals to be extradited to Taiwan – and mainland China.

Lai was in the US when the bill was announced, and was warned at breakfast by a US politician of the danger involved. "I was really alarmed," recalls Lai. "I looked at it again and said," Shit, that's awful. "I knew it would be a big deal."

He was right. The bill often triggered violent demonstrations in Hong Kong for nearly three months, which arrested and harassed more than 800 mostly young people, including riots. Twice demonstrators have paralyzed the city's airport.

In conversation with Lai, many of his defining moments seem to have been triggered by America. The name "Giordano" comes from a New York pizza-napkin; When the brand initially struggled to earn money, a trip to McDonald's Lai inspired him to optimize his offer, as the US burger chain had done. Apple Daily was developed in the style of USA Today.

His best adviser in Hong Kong, Mark Simon, is the son of a former CIA spy.

This last detail seduces the viewer again and again. One of the main allegations against Lai for decades is that he is a CIA stooge and the Apple Daily is a tool of the United States.

Earlier in the month, China's state-owned media burned Lai and three other prominent democracy-promoting figures in the city as Hong Kong's "Gang of Four" – a clue to the group attempting to overthrow Mao Zedong and seize power from the Communist Party in the 1970s.

The People's Daily claimed that Lai was part of a quartet of "secret middlemen and modern traitors" when Beijing attempted to attribute the Hong Kong riots to foreign forces.

The pro-Beijing lawmaker Tien believes Washington is pumping money into Hong Kong's democracy movement to create a "continuous force to destabilize China," although it admits that it has no evidence to substantiate this allegation.

Lai calls the idea of ​​a US-financed color revolution "ridiculous."

"If the US finances it, the evidence would be so obvious," he says. "You can not even find a person who gets up and says, 'Hey, I have money from the US.'

But he sees Washington as an important ally for Hong Kong – as evidenced by this early warning on the extradition bill. When Lai returned from this trip, he started to sound the alarm. At first, journalists were not particularly curled, he says. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam shakes hands with China's president Xi Jinping after being sworn in as the country's leader in 2017. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam shakes hands with China's president Xi Jinping after being sworn in as the country's leader in 2017. "class =" media__image "src =" http://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190821162654-01-carrie-lam-xi-jinping-file-large-169.jpg "/>

"Lam was very popular before this extradition law," says Lai. "Xi Jinping took her hand (at public events), she went with him, she really wanted to do something great for her boss. She knew that this was a great opportunity. And in fact it was almost. Because people really did not. "I do not pay attention to it first."

But the business world was more alarmed. "Everyone had to pay to protect the people they control in mainland China," says Lai. In addition, they realized that the law could be used by Chinese contacts as a blackmail tool. If a Chinese partner wanted to control his counterpart in Hong Kong, he might be able to report it to the authorities across the border, where there is a 99% conviction rate.

The opposition to the bill slowly increased, starting with a march of 12,000 people on March 31, led by Lam Wing-kee, a bookseller claiming to have been abducted by Hong Kong mainland agents in 2015, after he had sold critical books Beijing. China has denied kidnapping him.

Lam steamed ahead.

The marches continued: 160,000 people, then 1 million. Nevertheless, the bill remained in force at the beginning of June in the city's supreme legislative branch, Legco. Finally, on June 16, an estimated 2 million people took to the streets. The bill was suspended, but it was too late to quell the anger it had roused.

Tien admits that Washington is unlikely to conduct a 2 million-man march, but while protesters are increasingly waving American flags at the protests, something is what Lai says just an ad game to attract international interest Television cameras – the pro-Beijing politician wants an independent investigation into whether the CIA is funding a color revolution in the city.

A high-ranking US government official denied that Washington was promoting or calling for the demonstrations, and President Donald Trump also seemed to reject the proposal last week when he tweeted, "Many blame me and the United States." I can not imagine why?

Freedom over Luck

The founding of Apple Daily and the takeover of Hong Kong's fight for democracy gave Lai "a meaning in a life I never had as a textile magnate. "The mission," he says, "has a wonderful meaning."

The city's other tycoons avoided wading into crisis. "If you're a businessman in Hong Kong, it's difficult to bypass the Chinese market," says history professor Lam. "And once you get to the Chinese market, your investment becomes a hostage that the Chinese government never shies away from in order to exert influence."

Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing, worth it According to Forbes, more than $ 31 billion need to comment on the political crisis. Two cryptic news items were published in many city papers this month (Apple Daily was none of them). The cryptic nature of his cautionary advice was unmistakable-readers throughout the city speculated on whether he was addressing the demonstrators or Beijing or both.

"No other tycoon is willing to speak out against China as openly as Lai," says Clement So, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "That's what made Lai so unique."

This openness is not without danger.

In 2015, Molotov cocktails were thrown into the Next Media headquarters and Lai's home early in the morning. "We're not shocked, but violence is now an integral part of Hong Kong's political discourse, which is just a simple fact," said Mark Simon's assistant, Lai's assistant to CNN.

Today, Lai has a personal security detail in his home, but the self-confessed troublemaker says he never forgot what it was like to be poor, and he does not intend to overthrow the masses in the crusade they share with him to give up for democracy.

"The adolescents do not see a future for themselves – everything is expensive," says Lai. "Living in a small room is too expensive for them." The land of opportunity, where entrepreneurs such as Lai and Li Ka-shing thrived when they arrived in Hong Kong, has long since disappeared.

"With this extradition law, people thought, Okay, that's the last straw we have to fight, we have to fight this last frontier," he says.

This fight could not be good for the finances of the Apple Daily.

The extent of Lai's personal fortune is unknown today, but he dropped out of the Forbes Hong Kong Rich List in 2009. Large companies with interests in mainland China such as Cathay Pacific or Lis CK Hutchison Holdings never advertise in the Apple Daily. Hong Kong's former CEO, CY Leung, whose publication has long denied his close relationship with Beijing, regularly publishes images of companies advertising in Apple Daily on his Facebook page. "Apple Daily is the public enemy number 1 for CY Leung," says the history professor Lam.
  Hong Kong's former CEO, CY Leung, publishes photos on his Facebook page of companies promoting Apple Daily.
] To operate in this political landscape, in conjunction with a general decline in print sales and advertising, has put Apple Daily under financial pressure. The daily circulation of the newspaper is now 200,000, two thirds of the edition of a decade ago. 1.5 million readers are online. Daily advertising revenues have halved over the past three years. Next Digital has had a net loss for three years.

Earlier this year, the newspaper introduced a pay fence of three Hong Kong dollars for access by September. Next month, the release hopes subscribers will pay $ 50 per month.

"The timing is good for Apple Daily because people want news," says Clement So, the media expert. "Lai would like to receive financial support from online readers, if he could, this would be a lifeline, but if he does not succeed, it's a real worry if he can not sustain his business in the long term."

In the meantime, bootstrapping online outlets like Stand News and HKC News are growing competitors in the field of democracy. By recording chat shows on smartphones and employing a small staff, overheads are kept so low that no Beijing-affiliated advertisers are needed.

2047 on the horizon

For many, the year 2047, when Hong Kong is likely to regain full Chinese rule, was once a futuristic date. But now, since it is only 28 years away Hong Kongers can imagine this in their life. The fight for democracy has become more urgent, more controversial – but perhaps less achievable, as China's economic rise gives Beijing more political power to oppose democracy.

"I do not know where (the protests) will end," says Lai, "but one thing I know when the world watches over us … I think Trump, the US, can not pull you They can only go on, not financially, but politically and morally. "

Earlier this month, Pence said the chances of a trade deal with China worsened when Hong Kong's laws of Beijing were violated, and criticized the country's human rights violations as contrary to American ideals. Trump also tweeted that Chinese President Xi Jingping should meet demonstrators.

If increasing international pressure is accompanied by economic slowdown and job losses, China may change, Lai speculates. "That does not mean that the Communist Party will collapse," he adds. "But it could mean that Xi has to step down and take on a more liberal government and we're slowly on the right track." However, there is no indication that this will happen in the near future.

Meanwhile, the disruption is affecting Hong Kong's economy in tourism, aviation and retail. Michael Tien, the pro-Beijing legislator, says sales for his retail business fell 40% in August. "It does not do anybody any good to come out and consume," he says. The Hong Kong government has announced a $ 2.4 billion stimulus package to boost economic growth in the midst of the turmoil.

For Lai, if the economy of the financial center must suffer for freedom, let it be this way: The prospect of a fight does not give people an "excuse not to fight".

"If we fight, a miracle could happen," he says. "If we do not fight, we have to submit to tyranny, and I just think we can eliminate tyranny if we manage to eliminate slavery, which is hopeful."

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