Cautiously but defiantly, Jimmy Lai is determined to keep fighting for a democratic Hong Kong, even though he recognizes that China’s goal is to take full control of the region.
Media tycoon Lai speaks to the Guardian five days after his foreign collusion arrest – he is currently on bail – arguing the press must keep going. But he also believes Monday̵
Six weeks ago, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government in Hong Kong imposed national security laws that made even the mildest forms of activism a crime against the state. Dozens have since been arrested, including Lai, who owns the outrageously pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily.
“They just want to show the teeth of the national security law, but they haven’t bitten yet. Lets see what happens. “
Believing he will not be sent to the mainland for trial, Lai says his case will likely be a “litmus test” of the Hong Kong legal system and whether the authorities will keep their promise that the Hong Kong mini-constitution will be honored.
On Monday, police officers came to Lai’s home shortly after his morning exercise. They let him shower but kept the door open. He was then handcuffed and taken into custody, and police later took him through the Apple Daily newsroom while officers shot through reporters’ desks.
More than 40 hours later, he was released on heavy bail with no passport, court date or details of his charges, other than allegations of collaborating with foreign or external forces and a conspiracy to commit fraud.
Lai has met with U.S. politicians like Vice President Mike Spence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and in international interviews called for sanctions that can be considered collusive if they occur after June 30. He has refused to use US funds against Beijing and rejects the demand for independence for Hong Kong, which is on the fringes of the democracy movement. Nine others were also arrested.
Hong Kongers were angry, but the days of two million marches and violent street clashes with the police are over and they got creative. On days when Apple Daily normally postponed 70,000 copies, they reportedly sold half a million. Companies posted ads and dealers bought his company’s junk stocks, increasing the price.
The future of the Hong Kong protest is creativity and patience, according to Lai. “We’re not going to get what we want in a short period of time … We need to be more flexible and careful and find different ways to survive in the long term rather than the short term,” he says.
“Time is on our side, time is our weapon. No violence. “
The international community has responded to Beijing’s actions by revoking extradition treaties, imposing sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials and, in the UK, allowing more than three million Hong Kong residents with British national overseas passports.
“This is having an enormous positive effect in Hong Kong,” says Lai.
“Worse, you can live in England, which is a free country. So this will be a great intimidation for the CCP – if they push [Hong Kong] too hard for everyone to go. “
The stereotype about Lai, who is also a UK citizen, is that he is “Asia’s Rupert Murdoch” – rich, powerful and passionate about the news. He is a prominent figure in the democracy movement who is not afraid to criticize Beijing.
He believes that the world’s eyes are key to Hong Kong’s safety, as long as they don’t look away. He’s not sure if the hostile language of high-ranking U.S. officials like Mike Pompeo will be useful in the long term, but says China appears to have voted back its rhetoric for the time being.
“I think the more the US is involved in Asia, the better it is for everyone here to balance the power of the CCP.”
With the raid on Apple Daily, Hong Kong media fears became a reality. They had been told that the press was still free as long as they didn’t break the new law, but that no one could say what it would be like.
“We don’t know where the red line is, we don’t know where to keep the line,” says Lai. “For us, we will definitely keep doing what we’re doing.”
He says he doesn’t ask his journalists to be martyrs.
“What I say to my co-workers is: When doing your job, consider your own safety, your conscience and your obligation to society.”
“We always have to … test the bottom line. If we carry on we may have a couple of arrests, we may get a couple of sentences, but life has to go on and the press has to go on. “
What is the end game of movement? The promised full democracy they have been striving for for years is now “impossible,” says Lai, but they will continue to fight anyway.
“Without fighting, we have no hope. We don’t know when we will win, but we are so sure that we are on the right side of history and that time is on our side, ”he says.