A bipartisan group of leading U.S. lawmakers has nominated Jimmy Lai and five other Hong Kong democracy advocates for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The six nominees "are representative of millions of Hong Kongers who peacefully opposed the steady erosion of the city's democratic freedoms" by both the Hong Kong government, widely seen as taking orders from Beijing, and the government of the People's Republic of China, the U.S. lawmakers said in a press release Thursday.
Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), together with Congressman James P. McGovern (D-MA) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), nominated Lai, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Tonyee Chow Hang-tung, Gwyneth Ho, Lee Cheuk-Yan and Joshua Wong.
The legislators described the six as "ardent champions of Hong Kong's autonomy, human rights, and the rule of law as guaranteed under the Sino-British Declaration and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."
Through the nomination, the four U.S. lawmakers, comprising the current and immediate past chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, or CECC, say they seek to honor "all those in Hong Kong whose bravery and determination in the face of repression has inspired the world."
Liu Xiaobo, so far, is the only Chinese person to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, in 2010. Liu was imprisoned at the time — his absence at the award ceremony, represented by an empty chair — and he became a symbol of fundamental rights denied to Chinese citizens by their government.
Wei Jingsheng, who spent a total of 18 years as a political prisoner in China and who himself has been nominated for the Peace Prize in the past, applauded the nomination, calling it "timely and just."
"If these friends from Hong Kong are awarded the prize, it would be a huge inspiration and encouragement for the Chinese people" who, Wei says, believe in democracy, though many of them dare not speak their mind given the government's harsh control and punitive measures.
During a phone interview on Friday, Wei said he admired the courage of the nominees, including former newspaper publisher Lai, who was charged under Hong Kong's controversial national security law in August 2020. Lai has been jailed since December of that year on a variety of charges, the latest being he’s accused of having assisted 12 activists’ escape from Hong Kong, according to CECC’s political prisoner database.
Lai is expected to stand trial later this year on charges of colluding with foreign forces and sedition and, if convicted, could face life in prison.
Wei fondly recalled meeting Lai, whom he describes as a kindred spirit, in 1998 when the publisher took him to meet the late American economist Milton Friedman at Friedman's home in the San Francisco area. Friedman was himself a Nobel laureate, having won the prize for Economics in 1976.
"Li Zhiying [Lai’s name rendered in Mandarin] translated for me," Wei recalled. He said he and Lai, whose native tongue is Cantonese, did their best to communicate in Mandarin.
Apple Daily, a newspaper founded by Jimmy Lai, served as a "pillar" for pro-democracy voices, including his own, Wei told VOA, recalling the columns he wrote for the paper in years past. The paper was closed in June 2021 after Hong Kong authorities seized its assets under the territory's controversial national security law.
Wei also recalled meeting with Cardinal Zen, the most recent occasion being February 2020, when they both visited then-Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to discuss challenges to freedom in Hong Kong and China.
Hong Kong authorities, widely seen as taking orders from Beijing, arrested the then 90-year-old former bishop of Hong Kong in May 2021, before releasing him on bail shortly after; his arrest caused an outcry at the time and was viewed as an indicator of just how far the authorities would go in their attempts to punish and intimidate advocates of democracy and freedom.
Joshua Wong, born in 1996, is the youngest of the six nominees. He became known as one of the most outspoken voices of his generation, calling for freedom and autonomy in Hong Kong during the 2014 “Umbrella” protest movement. He later was arrested for his role in that movement.
When he came out of jail, Wong continued to express solidarity with others struggling for freedom, and he refused to give up fundamental civil rights, including those of free speech and assembly. He was again arrested in 2021 and is currently serving another prison term.