Amid the widespread anti-zero-COVID protests in mainland China, political and judicial persecution in Hong Kong continues in the criminal court, where key pro-democracy figures and journalists are facing national security trials that could result in life in jail.
Jimmy Lai is one of the most well-known defendants outside Hong Kong, and his trials have become symbolic of the crackdown on freedom of speech by Beijing. As the owner of the famous liberal newspaper Apple Daily, Lai has been seen as a committed advocate for the city’s universal suffrage, promised in the Basic Law of Hong Kong, a mini-constitutional document signed off by the Chinese state.
In 2020, Lai was charged by the national security police for colluding with foreign forces. He was denied bail by the city’s top court and kept in jail for almost two years. He is about to face another trial which could start on December 1, although it could get postponed at the last minute.
Hong Kong’s Department of Justice has submitted a request to the court to adjourn the case, but the decision is still uncertain.
In the past two years, Lai was convicted for acts of civil disobedience and commercial fraud and is now facing trial for colluding with foreign forces under the National Security Law, alongside publishing seditious publications under the local crimes ordinance. Lai could be sentenced to life in jail for the first charge. Three of his companies connected to Apple Daily were also charged with colluding with foreign forces and Lai’s six colleagues are awaiting trials for charges of colluding with foreign forces and publishing seditious publications, the same as Jimmy Lai. Lai and his three companies are pleading not guilty in the case.
His case marks the first criminal trial in Hong Kong for the offence of colluding with foreign forces. Despite its symbolic importance, the secretary for justice has decided to remove a jury from Lai’s case. Instead, three judges handpicked by the city’s executive leader will try it.
In pre-trial hearings, the public prosecution indicated evidence of Lai’s acts of foreign collusion would include his tweets, interviews with US scholars and former government officials, and court reporting of the Apple Daily. The removal of a jury implies that the authorities do not want the public to play a part in this trial, so members of the public cannot contribute their shared understanding of national security and foreign collusion to this case.
The secretary for justice went on to object to Timothy Owen, a British King’s Counsel specialising in criminal law, human rights law and media law, defending Lai in the local court. Although the court had approved Owen’s involvement in the case, the secretary for justice has continued to appeal to the Court of Final Appeal, which is the city’s top court, for a final ruling to stop Owen participating.
Born in the mainland, Lai fled to Hong Kong after witnessing his family members being sent to the labour camp after the “liberation” in mainland China. During the Tiananmen student movement in 1989, Lai, who owned a retailer, produced T-shirts with protest slogans in Hong Kong to support the movement. After that, his business in the mainland was closed down by the Chinese authorities. Before Hong Kong’s handover in 1997, Lai launched the Apple Daily newspaper, which became the city’s most popular pro-democracy media outlet.
In the eyes of the Chinese Communist party, Lai might be a symbol of the anti-Chinese forces. Lai didn’t hide his political ideology and anti-party beliefs. He gave vast donations to support the pro-democracy movement and influence local elections. He held meetings and dialogues with western government leaders, especially the United States, such as meeting then vice president Mike Pence, then secretary of state Mike Pompeo and US speaker Nancy Pelosi during Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill movement in 2019. The Chinese authorities eventually sanctioned Pompeo and Pelosi, and Lai was sentenced to jail for 20 months for his involvement in illegal assemblies during the 2019 democracy movement.
Struggles for freedom
For many supporters of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, Lai is the icon struggling for political freedom and universal suffrage. The Apple Daily had an impressive reputation for investigative journalism, unveiling many cases of government abuse of power and alleged corruption over decades.
It raised public awareness of the need for a democratic society and civil liberties and mobilised public opinion to resist illiberal government policies and laws, including the national security bill in 2003 and the ad hoc extradition agreement with China in 2019. Last but not least, his donations to local pro-democracy parties appeared to be a form of resistance to the CCP’s united front work that cultivates pro-government parties and elites in electoral politics. While pro-Beijing tycoons donate US$2.4 million (£2 million) to a pro-government party by buying a senior Chinese official’s calligraphy at auction, attacks on Lai’s support for the local democracy movement show that double standards are being enforced.
Although the court of final appeal ruled against the government, Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, recently announced that he had suggested the Chinese authorities interpret the national security law as a way of barring overseas lawyers from defending national security cases. Despite the local Bar Association’s open endorsement of the government’s move, the interpretation of the NSL would certainly undermine judicial independence and belief in fair trials in Hong Kong.
Given that Beijing will interpret the NSL in December, it is likely that Jimmy Lai’s trial, which is supposed to commence on December 1, will be adjourned.
Following John Lee’s proposal to Beijing, the Chinese authorities publicly disapproved of the CFA’s decision above and stressed that Lai deserved retribution for what he did. Beijing wants a show trial. For Hong Kong’s courts, Lai’s case is a test case for fair trials and free speech.
How Lai’s case is handled will signal how far Beijing will go to bring Hong Kong in line with the mainland and how much freedom and how many legal rights will remain on the island.