Jimmy Lai, the jailed Catholic publisher, pled not guilty in Hong Kong Tuesday to charges of conspiracy to produce seditious publications and conspiracy to collude with foreign powers.
Lai, who has been incarcerated since December 2020 on a range of “national security” charges, entered the pleas on January 2 in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Court under heavy police guard.
Prosecutors used their opening arguments Tuesday to brand Lai a political “radical,” and accuse him of conspiring with Western powers in the wake of the widespread 2019 civil rights demonstrations in Hong Kong and using his now closed newspaper Apple Daily to call for “foreign countries, in particular the [United States], to impose sanctions, blockades or [undertake] other hostile activities” against both Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland government.
The substance of the charges Lai faces is that his newspaper’s coverage of the shifting legal situation in Hong Kong, and the government’s crackdown on freedom of the press and civil liberties, amounts to sedition against the state. He faces life imprisonment if convicted.
Lai has already been convicted of participating in a banned demonstration in 2019, when Hong Kong saw widespread pro-democracy protests against government plans to bring in a law which would have allowed political prisoners to be extradited to the mainland to face trial. The demonstration in question was a prayer vigil to mark the Tiananmen Square Massacre, an annual event previously permitted in Hong Kong but now banned.
Earlier this year, a court in Hong Kong cleared Lai of the crime of organizing a 2019 pro-democracy demonstration, but upheld his conviction for taking part. He has been the subject of a “marathon” cycle of court hearings and prison terms since 2020, and the government forced the closure of his newspaper, Apple Daily, in 2021.
That extradition bill was subsequently dropped by the Hong Kong government. But in 2020 the mainland government imposed a new National Security Law on the special administrative region, which critics have said undermines the Basic Law, meant to enshrine Hong Kong’s legal status following the handover of the territory from the United Kingdom in 1997.
That law has curtailed significantly the exercise of civil liberties in Hong Kong and led to the arrest of several prominent pro democracy advocates, including Lai, as well as the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen.
In December, Agnes Chow, the Catholic pro-democracy activist released from jail in 2021, announced she had fled into exile in Canada.
At the time of the National Security Law’s imposition, Lai called it the “death knell” for the rule of law in Hong Kong. Soon after he was arrested and jailed on national security charges, he called his imprisonment “the pinnacle of [his] life.”
Lai has repeatedly cited his Catholic faith as a motivating and sustaining force in his ongoing trials. Since his initial arrest, Lai has received numerous awards and accolades from both Catholic and secular institutions, including the 2020 Freedom of the Press Award from Reporters Without Borders.
His newspaper, Apple Daily, was one of the last pro-democracy newspapers in Hong Kong publicly critical of the erosion of civil liberties protected in the Basic Law. The newspaper was forced to close in 2021, after the government froze assets belonging to Lai and his media company, and raided the newspaper’s offices, arresting several editors.
In addition to his criminal trials, Lai has also faced numerous court battles for the freedom to appoint lawyers of his own choosing. Although two local courts upheld Lai’s right to be represented by a top UK lawyer, Hong Kong’s chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu, also a Catholic, appealed to the mainland government last year to prevent Luke Owen, a UK national, from representing Lai.
Because of its historical ties to the UK and UK law, British lawyers and judges have long served in the Hong Kong legal system. Lee has sought to block Owen’s appointment, arguing that foreign nationals should not be allowed to take part in national security trials.
Last year, the mainland government ruled that Hong Kong political executives, not judges, have the final say on which lawyers are qualified to appear in court in national security cases, clearing the way for Owen’s final rejection.
At the time of Lai’s initial arrest in December of 2020, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, called the move “obviously a case of political intimidation.”
“This is evidently all about political persecution,” Zen said in an interview at the time. “Jimmy Lai is obviously the one who runs the only newspaper which is still completely free.”
“So, there is a clear policy direction: suppress the freedom of expression,” said the cardinal.
While the cardinal was originally held on national security grounds, including alleged collusion with foreign agents, he was ultimately charged only with failing to register the humanitarian fund through the proper channels — though the National Security Law charges remain unpursued by prosecutors, meaning they are effectively in legal cold storage.
Lai’s trial attracted widespread media coverage over Christmas, as did the Hong Kong government’s decision to deploy some 1,000 police and security personnel to prevent public demonstrations on Lai’s behalf.
However, in the midst of international outcry over Lai’s treatment and the erosion of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, including by the US, UK, and other Western governments, Zen’s successor as Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Stephen Chow, used his Christmas Day homily to voice skepticism of the current state of liberal democracy in the West.
"Today's democratic development is due to the past kings' abuse of power and disregard for the people's happiness and life, resulting in the current consequences,” said Cardinal Chow in his Dec. 25 homily.
“But does the modern democratic system truly allow the people's dignity to be reasonably reflected,” the cardinal asked, “or has it become a [matter of] party or capital, [that] in the competition for space, whoever has more money and more publicity will benefit more?"
Chow went on to weigh the rise of populist forces and partisan divisions in some democracies against the principles of “fairness” and the common good.
Cardinal Chow was installed as Bishop of Hong Kong in December, 2021, after a long process to appoint a successor to the most recent bishop, Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, who died unexpectedly in 2019.
At the time of his installation, Chow said that he had previously attended banned public gatherings in Hong Kong, including a prayer vigil to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which he has called a formative event in his life.
Since then, he has appeared to try to steer a middle course between advocating for the Church’s freedoms and avoiding overt confrontations with the government.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental human right,” Chow said during his first press conference after being announced as the incoming Hong Kong bishop. “We would like to remember it in our dialogues with the government, so that it is not forgotten.”
“I am not a diplomat; no bishop is,” Chow said in an interview in 2022, but pointedly noted that “of course, sometimes we have to be diplomatic.”
Following a much publicized visit to the mainland last year, the first for decades by a Hong Kong bishop, Chow said that Catholics have a duty to be good citizens, as taught by the Church, but frankly acknowledged tensions and problems with state authorities and said that dialogue “is not about kowtowing.”
“It is true that ‘loving our country’ is a core value espoused by the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government,” Chow said, while acknowledging that his stance was “received with mixed emotions, which includes sadness, disappointment, or even anger.”
“My Beijing trip taught me to appreciate ecclesiastical and government personnel in the light of a common humanity desiring for ends that encourage further understanding and collaboration,” Chow said, but “we cannot be naïve about debilitating bureaucracy and political interests being some major obstacles to a fruitful dialogue.”
Authentic and fruitful dialogue, the cardinal said “is not about kowtowing but a sharpening of core values in the search for a common approach.”
“We can be hopeful the Holy Spirit can make and has made wonderful interventions through our humanity beyond imagination.”