Faith, free­dom and fire­bombs: HK ty­coon Jimmy Lai


As one of Hong Kong’s most out­spo­ken democ­racy ad­vo­cates, media ty­coon Jimmy Lai has been on the re­ceiv­ing end of ev­ery­thing from rot­ten an­i­mal en­trails to Molo­tov cock­tails in the past 12 months.

When the city erupted into mass protests last year against a Bei­jing-backed plan for its next leader, fa­ther-of-six Lai, 66, be­came a fre­quent fix­ture at the ma­jor rally site and a reg­u­lar tar­get for pro­gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers.

The con­tentious bill would have al­lowed the public to vote for Hong Kong’s leader for the first time, but kept to a Bei­jing rul­ing that all can­di­dates must be vet­ted by a loy­al­ist com­mit­tee — de­rided as “fake democ­racy” by Lai and op­po­si­tion cam­paign­ers.

Af­ter months of po­lit­i­cal wran­gling the pro­posal was fi­nally voted down on Thurs­day by law­mak­ers in an un­prece­dented re­buke by the semi-au­ton­o­mous city to­wards Bei­jing.

But with the de­feat of the bill, Hong Kong’s leader will con­tinue to be cho­sen by a pro-Bei­jing com­mit­tee and Lai is pre­par­ing for the next phase of bat­tle.

“It’s very en­cour­ag­ing for Hong Kong (that the bill was re­jected),” he tells AFP.

“What’s go­ing to hap­pen in the end? We re­ally don’t know. But once we give up, we are giv­ing up fight­ing for our democ­racy and free­dom. We are kind of giv­ing up our dig­nity as hu­mans,” he says.

Founder of the stri­dent anti-gov­ern­ment news­pa­per Ap­ple Daily and the main share­holder — along with his wife Teresa — in its pub­lisher Next Media, Lai draws both ad­mi­ra­tion and bile.

His house and of­fice were fire­bombed in Jan­uary and pu­trid an­i­mal or­gans thrown at him dur­ing the demon­stra­tions.

“You just get used to it. I’ve never had a body­guard,” says a mat­ter-of-fact Lai.

“If I go to the MTR (Hong Kong’s sub­way) there’s al­ways some­one shout­ing at me, point­ing at me, call­ing me ‘traitor.’ I don’t care.

“I just do what I think is right.”

‘China must change’

Bei­jing has shown no sign of com- prom­ise on fu­ture re­form for Hong Kong and there are fears of a back­lash in the wake of the de­feat of the bill, but Lai says the PRC must change.

“China be­ing the No. 2 strong­est coun­try in the world and hav­ing a dic­ta­tor like Xi Jin­ping on top of it is mak­ing a lot of other coun­tries rest­less,” says Lai.

Hong Kong was a Bri­tish colony un­til it was handed back to the PRC in 1997 and is ruled un­der a “one coun­try, two sys­tems” deal that al­lows it far greater civil lib­er­ties than those en­joyed on the Chi­nese main­land, in­clud­ing free­dom of speech and the right to protest.

How­ever a num­ber of in­ci­dents in re­cent months have sounded alarm bells over threats to press free­doms, from cen­sor­ship and the strate­gic with­drawal of advertising to in­ter­fer­ence from of­fi­cials and phys­i­cal as­saults on jour­nal­ists.

More op­pres­sion in Hong Kong would make the city in­creas­ingly un­govern­able, says Lai, who also bats away con­cerns over the frag­men­ta­tion of the democ­racy move­ment as new smaller groups emerge.

Re­lax­ing back into an arm­chair at Next Media head­quar­ters, Lai casts him­self as a rebel op­ti­mist.

At 12 years old he was smug­gled in to Hong Kong by his fam­ily in a boat from the south­ern Chi­nese city of Guangzhou.

He be­gan work in a gar­ment fac­tory, be­com­ing a knit­ter and teach­ing him­self English be­fore set­ting up a cloth­ing firm in his late 20s.

It was the bloody crack­down in Bei­jing’s Tianan­men Square in 1989 that hard­ened his pol­i­tics and he set up Next Media the fol­low­ing year.

He con­verted to Catholi­cism in 1997, en­cour­aged by his wife, and says his faith makes him “worry less.”

The daily crises of his early life as an en­tre­pre­neur have also made him an op­ti­mist, he says.

But while Lai may be phleg­matic, he does not want his chil­dren to fol­low his path — they will not in­herit his media em­pire.

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