Jailed Catholic publisher and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai faces a “marathon” cycle of court hearings and prison terms, according to his son Sebastian, who told The Pillar that Hong Kong has changed beyond recognition in recent years, amid a government crackdown on civil liberties.
Jimmy Lai, a Catholic, received May 14 an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of America in Washington. The honor was accepted by his son Sebastian; the elder Lai is incarcerated in Hong Kong, after his 2021 conviction for breaches of the National Security Law imposed in 2020 on the special administrative region by the mainland government.
“One of the most fundamental drivers of why dad is standing up for what he believes in is his faith,” Sebastian Lai told The Pillar. “Obviously religious freedom is inherently tied to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”
Jimmy Lai, 74, owned and published Apple Daily, 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 after the government froze assets belonging to Lai and his media company, and raided the newspaper’s offices, arresting several editors.
When the National Security Law was imposed, Jimmy Lai called it the “death knell” of 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.
The publisher has been in prison since December 2020, and has been convicted of unlawful assembly for attending a 2019 prayer vigil, as well as for organizing illegal gatherings. He still faces a number of other prosecutions under the National Security Law, and a fraud charge, connected to an office his company sublet, which supporters says is a trumped-up charge over a technicality.
Jimmy Lai’s son Sebastian said his father will likely spend several years tied up in legal proceedings.
“I think it's a marathon, it's definitely going to drag on,” Sebastian Lai told The Pillar.
“And that's why it’s so important to have awards, like at Catholic University, because that's how you stay in people's minds, that's how you make sure that he isn’t forgotten — that there's this place called Hong Kong, and now it's being destroyed, but the people are still there.”
“The news cycles so fast that you forget that there are many people in Hong Kong at this moment, in jail for what is basically support for democratic ideas,” Sebastian Lai added.
Since his initial arrest, Jimmy 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.
Lai’s honorary degree at Catholic University came just days after authorities in Hong Kong arrested Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year-old emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, on charges of colluding with foreign powers.
Zen was arrested with Margaret Ng, a prominent Hong Kong barrister, and Denise Ho, a singer and civil rights activist, over their roles as trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, a now-closed charity that helps political arrestees in Hong Kong.
Zen, a staunch critic of the Chinese mainland government’s abuses of religious freedom, a prominent face among Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, said at the time of Lai’s arrest that he and other arrested Catholics in Hong Kong were “simply putting into practice the social teaching of the Church.”
“In this moment, democracy means freedom and human rights, human dignity,” Zen said in 2020.
The cardinal has called the arrest of Jimmy Lai an act of “political intimidation” against journalists and pro-civil rights activists.
Sebastian Lai told The Pillar that he does not see Zen’s arrest as an act of government intimidation, or think it was meant to warn to Hong Kong residents against stepping out in favor of democracy.
Hong Kongers are already intimidated, he said.
“To be completely honest, I don’t see it as intimidation against the people. I feel like all the people they want to be afraid are already afraid — they aren’t going to suddenly become afraid because you've arrested the cardinal.”
“They arrested a 90-year-old man who can't protect himself,” Lai said, “and that is a huge disrespect to the Catholic Church. They didn't have to arrest him…it was a choice.”
Lai told The Pillar that his father would often speak of civil liberties as separate “baskets of freedom” — economic, journalistic, personal, and religious, each contributing to the rule of law, and each now facing serious threats in Hong Kong.
He noted that Zen, a Catholic cardinal, was arrested along with Margaret Ng, a well-respected Hong Kong lawyer, and Denise Ho, a prominent LGBT campaigner.
“They’re all connected together in Hong Kong,” he said. “That's what's made Hong Kong so unique for so long.”
“What made Hong Kong so attractive as a place to invest and to live in was the rule of law; we had all these protections against the state. And over the last two years, it’s very visible that that's no longer the case.”
In 2019, the Hong Kong government attempted to pass a controversial extradition bill, which would have allowed political arrestees to be sent to the Chinese mainland for trial. The bill triggered months of demonstrations and led to the imposition of the 2020 National Security Law, which criminalized broad swathes of speech and action related to politics.
Asked if Hong Kong was “still Hong Kong” after two years of legal changes and civil liberties crackdowns, Sebastian Lai said simply, “It isn’t, 100 percent.”
“Hong Kong has always been defined by change,” he said. “But the reason why I'm saying that Hong Kong is no longer really Hong Kong is because something fundamental has changed.”
“I mean, arresting a cardinal is one of those things you simply would never imagine they would do, until one day they do it. And then suddenly it feels very natural.”
“Hong Kong is one of those fast-paced places where people aren’t necessarily all that polite to each other. But it was also quite equalitarian, because, you know, you could tell the guy who is in a higher position than you what you thought of him.”
“I feel like that's an incredibly important part of what makes Hong Kong Hong Kong: speaking your mind, the freedom of starting a business or writing what you want to write. I definitely feel like that's something that is under attack,” Lai said.
Lai, who now lives away from Hong Kong, told The Pillar that Hong Kongers have long maintained a unique sense of identity, rooted in both their Chinese culture and in their support for civil liberties. But he said the question of Hong Kong identity has become more complicated in recent years.
“It's pretty mind blowing what is happening right now,” he said. “As a person from Hong Kong, you would always go to Chinatown in London or wherever, and you'd recognize that people moved there 40 years ago, maybe after Tiananmen Square, and you'd think ‘They had to move here under such circumstances.’”
“But now it has happened to us,” he said.
On May 7, John Lee Ka-chiu, the former chief secretary of Hong Kong’s government and its former secretary for security was elected as the new chief executive of the Hong Kong government.
Lee, a Catholic, was the only candidate on the ballot, largely because of political reforms which require all candidates for office to be recognized as “patriots.”
Lee was elected by the 1,500 member Election Commission, a body also reformed by the new election laws, and whose members Lee was responsible for vetting.
The issue of “patriotism” has been raised in relation to Catholic schools and other kinds of religious speech since the 2020 National Security Law, with teachers instructed to ensure “patriotic values” were promoted in the classroom and priests warned to steer clear of politics in their homilies.
Lai told The Pillar that questions of identity, culture and government in Hong Kong have been central to political crackdowns in recent years.
“It’s one country, two systems. So Hong Kong has always belonged to China in that sense,” he said. “But I think the fundamental question is whether you believe that a government serves the people, or the people serve the government. I think fundamentally that's where we’ve come to.”
“If you say you're American, you might fight for your country, but you fundamentally believe that your government is there for you,” said Lai. “And I feel like that’s what Hong Kong is, or was. In China, patriotism, all these kinds of things, everybody works for the good of the government.”
“It's a very loaded question: do Hong Kongers identify as Chinese as well? Because I'd say most people do,” he said.
“I would say that I’m a Hong Konger, I’m from Hong Kong, I’m Chinese — but I’m not part of the Chinese Communist Party.”
“And I think those two things are something that the CCP has done very effectively to link — there’s only one party. China is the CCP, CCP is China, and I think they've done a very ‘good job’ of making everyone believe that in China.”