The conviction of Jimmy Lai yesterday on the trumped-up charges of fraud serve a very specific purpose – discredit the 74-year-old Hong Kong media mogul and activist ahead of his National Security trial in December. So said Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, who is part of Lai’s international legal team at Doughty Street Chambers.
Gallagher was speaking on a panel held on Monday ahead of the trial to discuss Lai, who has been imprisoned in Hong Kong since 2020. The panel took place at the House of Lords and was chaired by veteran journalist John Simpson. The event was hosted by Baroness Helena Kennedy KC. Rebecca Vincent from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the last Governor General of Hong Kong, Lord Patten of Barnes, were also on the panel.
Simpson, describing Lai as a personal friend, introduced the event and acknowledged Lai’s personal wealth, pointing out it would have been easier for Lai to have used his money to escape rather than to “face the music”.
Reading a speech from Lai’s son, Simpson quoted Sebastian Lai when saying the CCP “had to corrupt the Hong Kong justice system, twisting it and bending it to fit their whims. So today, I call on the UK government to protect him and secure his freedom.”
This was a strong theme of the debate. While Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Bryant – two prominent MPs from different ends of the parliamentary political spectrum – were present, there was a general feeling that the British government had to do more to help a British citizen unfairly imprisoned abroad, and there had to be more awareness.
Despite acknowledging the help of the Foreign Office and Civil Service, Gallagher feels the previous and current Foreign Secretary ignored the plight of Lai. She said: “We haven’t met Liz Truss or James Cleverly, despite asking to. Whoever is the Foreign Secretary needs to engage with us and make this a political priority. People need to be shouting from the rooftops about this case.”
Patten stated his admiration for Lai, saying: “I hope we make a fuss about him and continue to do so”. He added: “Not only is he a formidable man, but of all the things that angers the CCP is not only that he chose to stay in Hong Kong when he could have left, but that he is also emblematic of what they find so difficult to accept.”
The continued imprisonment of Jimmy Lai and his Apple Daily colleagues will have strong implications for the residents of Hong Kong, Baroness Kennedy believes. She said: “I think, at the moment, a lot of people in Hong Kong believe that these issues won’t affect them, thinking “oh, they’re only going after Jimmy Lai”.” But as Kennedy pointed out, even speaking to people who have been charged under the draconian national security law (which was passed in the summer of 2020) can see people fall foul of the law. And indeed, her wider point was echoed throughout the talk, namely that no one wants to be the frog in the pot of boiling water, not acknowledging how serious the threat is.
Rebecca Vincent said that RSF were releasing a petition to shed light on Jimmy Lai’s situation, urging the Chinese government to drop all charges against him and release Lai, and his colleagues from Apple Daily, without delay.