“Freedom of speech is a dangerous job,” the Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai wrote by hand in a letter from prison last year. Apple Daily is his scrappy tabloid newspaper, which became a voice for democracy and Hong Kong. According to Beijing’s National Security Law, Mr. Lai faces fabricated charges. His trial is to begin this week — and the right to freedom of expression and association will be in the dock with him.
Mr. Lai wrote in his handwritten letter that it is “a journalist’s responsibility to uphold justice” and “it is precisely this that we need to love and cherish. … The era is falling apart before us, and it is time for us to stand tall.”
In that era, which included the many decades during which Mr. Lai rose out of poverty to become a wealthy man, Hong Kong was a beacon of freedom, enterprise and law. China promised that it would uphold this system when it seized Hong Kong from Britain in 1997. But in recent years, it has betrayed the promise and absorbed the territory into the mainland’s authoritarian system, cracking down on public protests, arresting dissidents and journalists, and shutting down the free press — including Apple Daily, which published its last print edition on June 24, 2021, after the government seized its assets and forced a closure.
In 1960, as a 12-year-old boy in poverty, Mr. Lai fled the mainland for Hong Kong. He worked in sweatshops as a child laborer while learning English. He bought a bankrupt clothing factory and built a clothing retailer with outlets all over Asia. He bought a bankrupt garment factory and then built up a clothing retail business with outlets throughout Asia. In 1995, he founded the newspaper. Apple Daily, which was founded in 1995 by Mr. Lai, was a prominent critic of Beijing’s leadership.
In an attempt to intimidate and humiliate Mr. Lai, the government has taken him into custody several times over recent years. However, the charges against Mr. Lai in the upcoming case are the most serious. A conviction could result in life imprisonment. In June 2021, he was accused of colluding with foreign powers — a ludicrous charge. Police claimed some 30 articles in Apple Daily played a “crucial part” in a conspiracy with governments abroad to impose sanctions on China and Hong Kong — sanctions that were in response to China’s suppression of democracy in Hong Kong. In an ominous turn, six of Apple Daily’s top executives recently pleaded guilty to the collusion charges and some might testify against Mr. Lai. Although the trial is set to start on Thursday, legal wrangling about whether Mr. Lai can be represented in Britain may delay it.
Apple Daily and Mr. Lai are not criminals. The attempt to extinguish this bright light of journalism and democracy illustrates once again the long shadow of intolerance and oppression that China’s Communist Party is casting over Hong Kong.
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