Argument for urgent intervention in Jimmy Lai case laid bare in new report

The UK government is failing to acknowledge a British citizen unfairly imprisoned in Hong Kong amid a wider targeting of journalists and pro-democracy campaigners in the city state, said the authors of a new report on issues of freedom in Hong Kong.

On Monday, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong (APPG) met at Portcullis House, London, to discuss their new report, Inquiry into Media Freedom in Hong Kong: The case of Jimmy Lai and and Apple Daily, which offers a sobering look into the state of media freedoms in the once vibrant city. Index contributed to the report.

The session was headed by Baroness Bennett of Manor Caste, the joint chair of the APPG. Other speakers included Lai’s international lawyer, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, Baroness Helena Kennedy and Sebastian Lai, Jimmy Lai’s son.

One of the aims of the report is to provoke a response from the British government regarding Lai. A pro-democracy figure, media tycoon and British citizen, he is in a Hong Kong prison after sentencing for unauthorised assembly and fraud charges. In addition to these charges are more serious ones of violating Hong Kong’s national security law, which was passed in 2020. Six of his colleagues at Apple Daily, the newspaper founded by Lai, are also in jail charged under the national security laws.

Kennedy believes the case of Jimmy Lai should be treated as a political priority by the UK government not only because Lai is a British citizen, but also because of the the joint declaration that gives the UK a place in trying to guarantee the rights of people in Hong Kong.

She added: “It is the illegitimate use of law against a citizen by the government, and against the protection of media freedom and expression in Hong Kong.”

Lord Alton of Liverpool, a vice chair of the APPG, echoed Kennedy’s called for Magnitsky-style sanctions against allies of the Hong Kong authorities in the UK as further action is needed. “We have to go beyond sanctions, to freezing the assets and redeploying the resources of those who have been able to use London as a place for their activities,” he said.

Gallagher said the Hong Kong authorities have weaponised their laws to target pro-democracy campaigners and journalists in new ways. Gallagher, who represents Jimmy Lai, as well as Maria Ressa from the Philippines who was charged with tax evasion, says that this is a new tactic – trying to discredit them by painting them as bad people rather than using the more traditional tactic of defamation. “It’s straight from the dictators’ playbook,” she said.

Kennedy echoed this by stating fraud and tax affair charges are common tactics used against journalists in Hong Kong before more serious charges are later served. They added that as a result of supporting Lai they’ve received a series of threats and intimidation from state actors.

Sebastian Lai said he is also a target for the Chinese authorities. He acknowledged international support regarding his father’s cause but expressed disappointment in the UK government’s attitude. He said: “The language the UK government has used has been nowhere close to what America has used for not only a British citizen, but my father.”

However, he did acknowledge thanks for Anne Marie Trevelyan, MP and Minister of State in the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, for meeting him.

Fiona O’ Brien, the UK bureau director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said it needed to be waved in the face of those in power, “along with journalists writing stories, lawyers pursuing legal routes and advocates in society. We need to continue to shine a light.”

The report can be found here.

Britain needs to do more to help Jimmy Lai

Jimmy Lai attends a candlelight vigil to mark the 31st anniversary of the crackdown of pro-democracy protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. Photo: Tyrone Siu/Reuters/Alamy

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.

Postcard campaign provides comfort to Jimmy Lai in prison

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”119624″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]On the east coast of the USA around 100 children have sent postcards to a man they do not know who is incarcerated over 8,000 miles away. The man is Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media mogul and activist.

The postcards have provided a brief ray of light in an otherwise dark chapter for a man locked up for his political beliefs, and the city state of Hong Kong which is currently in the ever-tightening grip of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Lai is imprisoned on charges most us will, hopefully, never have to face. The billionaire publisher and founder of Apple Daily has been jailed since December 2020 after he lit a candle during a public commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

The charges were related to this and his other pro-democracy protests. He is perhaps the most high-profile victim of the National Security Law, which was passed in the summer of 2020 with the precise aim of punishing and stifling dissent. This month he faces a trial without jury, where he will plead not guilty to the national security charges.

April Ponnuru’s daughter with the postcards.

April Ponnuru has organised the campaign on behalf of The Committee For Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation (CFHK). It was her idea for children at her daughter’s school, in Virginia, to send supportive postcards to Lai after learning he is a devout Catholic.

“My children are in a Catholic school and are Catholic, and I was thinking about how Catholics believe in the idea called corporal works of mercy, and they are these physical acts we do for people that import a lot of grace and mercy, and one of those is visiting the imprisoned,” she said.

She explained how Lai being persecuted for his ideas and belief – not only political but also regarding his faith – inspired her to contact her children’s school.

“This is a great example for these kids of somebody who stood up for their faith and is suffering unjust consequences for that. I thought they could write postcards to Jimmy and tell him they know a little bit of his story, and they’re praying for him and admire him.”

Lai is currently held at Stanley Prison, a maximum-security facility in Hong Kong where he has spent time in solitary confinement. Already a believer, he has found strength through his faith. A drawing of Jesus Christ on the cross done by Lai from prison was printed on the postcards the children sent.

This drawing was originally published in Index on Censorship’s spring 2022 magazine, alongside letters of his, many of which reference his faith.

Ponnuru said: “We thought it would be nice to include some religious art by Jimmy, and it would be a really meaningful thing that this art he sent out in the world would come back to him from a lot of children. For the children it was a great way to participate in corporal works of mercy that they ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do so. By sending him a card and message, they are visiting him.”

Jimmy Lai’s drawing of Jesus Christ.

She is eager to point out that she wants any child to have the opportunity to send a postcard, as the message of the project should not be defined just by Catholicism.

“This isn’t limited to Catholic schools. We would love any child to participate, children of all faiths and no faith. It’s about understanding the injustice of what is happening to Jimmy and others in Hong Kong. This pilot programme is just the beginning, and we would be very happy to create a postcard that would be appropriate for students at public and other schools to send as well,” Ponnuru said.

“Overall, a number of people have said to me they would love to bring it to their school, and priests have told me they are interested in copying the programme. We are going to write to other schools to encourage them to join the project.”

It’s understood the postcards were received in prison within three months of being sent, and that Lai is being allowed to read one daily, enabling him to have regular contact with the outside world.

If you would like more information about the project, and to request postcards for Jimmy Lai, please contact [email protected].[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Lament for Hong Kong

In October 1999, a crowd gathered outside Buckingham Palace to jeer at Jiang Zemin, then China’s president as he ate dinner inside with Queen Elizabeth. “Free Tibet!” and “Nazi China,” they shouted. For Jiang, who was known to be sensitive to criticism (he had earlier told Swiss lawmakers that they had “lost a good friend” after they declined to quash similar protests) it was surely an uncomfortable moment. It was also a sign of a robust democratic principle: the right to peaceful assembly and protest.

I lived in Guangzhou at the time and watched coverage of Jiang’s UK visit on Hong Kong terrestrial TV, beamed from across the border about 130km away. But at just the point where cameras panned over the protestors and their placards, the screen was abruptly replaced with a test card. I later learned that beetle-browed apparatchiks spent their days waiting to pounce on any broadcast that offended mainland sensibilities. Like the Stalinist cult of Soviet Russia, China could not endure the friction of free expression.

Censorship this crude can be grimly funny. Blanking TV screens is an electronic update of photographic ‘retouching’, when Soviet bureaucrats diligently scratched out images of political figures who had been purged or executed by the regime of Joseph Stalin. In the late 1980s, British television producers hired voice actors to precisely mimic Sinn Fein politicians in a creative attempt to work around a government ban on terrorist spokespersons. But it was hard to find much humor in China’s didactic prohibitions, except for the unintentional kind.

I taught at the Guangdong University of Technology until 2000. In the evenings I would traipse to the university internet centre, a crowded room full of battered old computers to send emails home. Large signs on the wall warned against browsing for anything to do with politics, religion or sex. In the classroom I was also instructed to avoid those taboos. It was made known to me that a cadre from the Communist Party was in the classroom ready to flee to the dean should I break the rules, for which I would be fired and sent home.

The state graduated from these primitive attempts to restrict internet searches to erecting the Great Chinese Internet Firewall, one of the world’s most sophisticated systems of online censorship. YouTube and Facebook were banned in 2009, later Google, Dropbox and Wikipedia. Foreign newspapers (including my own – The Economist and The Independent) and the New York Times have been repeatedly blocked, domestic journalists imprisoned, foreign journalists intimidated or kicked out.

One of the bleakest developments of the last decade has been watching the dead-hand of this official repression seep into Hong Kong. The province was hardly paradise – crowded, venal and with eye-popping disparities in wealth. Nevertheless, its cinemas, newspapers and bookstores did not live in fear of being gagged or shut down. One of the first books I bought there was The Private Life of Chairman Maoa memoir by Mao’s doctor Li Zhisui, which chronicles, among other things, the Chinese leader’s alleged fondness for sex with young girls.

Long before the National Security Law (NSL) dropped like a dirty bomb in the summer of 2020, bookstores and public libraries were removing critical titles about Mao, history, the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and the democracy movement. The closures last year of the anti-communist Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s largest-selling newspaper, and online website Stand, which scrubbed all its old articles, are only the tallest trees to be toppled by the law.

Programmes have been cancelled and reporters sacked, moved or banned from covering press events. Foreign journalists, such as Aaron McNicholas, a former Bloomberg reporter from the same Irish town as myself (Clones) have had their visa applications rejected (he was forced to return home in September 2020). Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the public service station I used to watch while in Guangdong, has pulled back from interviews and removed archives that might trigger the censors.

Self-censorship is the worst kind, said the Czech-born movie director Milos Forman, because it twists spines, destroys character and turns us into hypocrites. It’s also the “goal” of all repressive regimes, said one Hong Kong-based journalist. “You start to question yourself whether that story you’re researching is still doable in light of the NSL,” said the journalist who requested anonymity. “They can slice and dice that law in whatever way they wish, and if you cross the line, you can be arrested and denied bail.”

More reporters are getting the message. In the last month, over half a dozen have reportedly quit the newsroom of The South China Morning Post, once one of the crowns in Rupert Murdoch’s empire, now owned by Alibaba, a Chinese internet company run by billionaire Jack Ma. Ma disappeared from public view for three months in November 2020 after he criticised the country’s creaking financial system. Many will have surely heeded the lesson: if China’s richest man can be brought to heel, who cannot.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has punctuated this historic assault on a first-world media with a series of surreal statements denying it is happening. In January, she said her government did “not seek to crack down on press freedom.” Last year, in a Trumpian touch, she said her government was the “worst victim” of fake news, the prelude to what many fear will be more legislation targeting the internet.

As the scale of the government’s ambitions to throttle free expression became clear, Lam insisted that journalists were safe – as long as they obeyed the security law. Of course, as media watchdog Reporters Without Borders noted, the scope of the four new offences that can be wielded against journalists – secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers – is so “deliberately vague and catch-all” as to make all but government stenography a dangerous proposition (life imprisonment is the mandated punishment).

Beyond the silenced reporters, activists and politicians, various sectors of Hong Kong society, such as unions, are “quietly shutting down”, said the anonymous journalist, citing “fear of repercussions”.

“That bedrock of civil society is slowly – actually quickly – being eroded,” he said.

One of the last public memorials to the Tiananmen incident – a statue of piled-up corpses to commemorate those killed – was removed from the University of Hong Kong in December. “Hong Kong has now become a place where those who speak out against such draconian measures await the midnight knock,” writes Michael C Davis, a professor of law at the university until 2016.

David Law, who also taught at the university but who recently left Hong Kong, says the removal of the ‘pillar of shame’ was a shock. “It isn’t necessarily the most telling event but it is the most visible, something that people saw and remember and can relate to as a common point of reference – literally a landmark,” he says. “It has been valuable for getting people to literally see what is happening. Symbols do that.”

I was last in Hong Kong in 2013, on a book tour, giving a couple of talks on the Fukushima nuclear accident that had occurred two years previously. I had been invited by activists campaigning for the closure of the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant across the border in Guangdong. I wrote back to them this month as I was researching this article, asking if the new law had affected their activities, but I got no reply. It’s possible they hadn’t received my mail – or that they cannot respond. That’s what happens when everyone is afraid.

Pondering all this over the last week, I recalled gleefully smuggling my Mao book back across the border in late 1999 and debating with my wife whether to teach it in journalism class, which I eventually did.

I’d love to frame this decision, which broached two of three of the university’s banned topics, as a daring jab at the censors, or a pedagogic exercise in challenging perspectives – but I was mostly curious about the reaction of my students. They had been taught a precise formulation on Mao’s rule – 70% good, 30% bad – a calculation that included nothing about his sexual proclivities. In the end, one or two were furious at this new information but if the dean got wind of it, I never heard. Perhaps the university was short of teachers.

Or perhaps the students knew already. One of the surprises of being in China was the knowing cynicism and dry humour that peppered chats about the country’s rulers. It would be good to be able to talk again to my now middle-aged students about how such cynicism finds expression in the age of Xi Jinping. As we know, attempts to use online euphemisms and code, such as images of Winnie the Pooh to lampoon the tubby tyrant have been squashed, proving again that despotism and humorlessness are natural partners, and, as British contrarian Christopher Hitchens once said, censorship inevitably degenerates into absurdity and corruption.