HONG KONG - For Jimmy Lai, a prominent pro-democracy figure and the founder of Hong Kong’s best-selling newspaper Apple Daily, the prospect of going to jail had never felt so real.
“Things are getting so bad, anything like this can happen any day,” he said.
Facing seven charges, including organizing and participating in unauthorized assemblies and inciting others to take part in unauthorized assembly, the 72-year-old media tycoon looked fatigued as he sat down in his office, though his usual feisty spirit picked up as he started talking.
In recent months, China has markedly tightened its control of Hong Kong, which has been roiled by a year-long, sometimes violent anti-government movement that Beijing said was mobilized by “foreign hostile forces.”
The arrests of 15 veteran pro-democracy activists, including Lai, and the proclamation of China’s representative offices in Hong Kong that they were not bound by a clause in the city’s post-handover mini constitution, Basic Law, to stay out of local affairs, caused widespread concern.
But nothing could have prepared people for China’s shock announcement in late May that it would impose a national security law to tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference. “Foreign interference” was last week changed to “collusion with foreign power” in a move that critics say would target Hong Kongers who seek help from foreign countries on political issues.
An explanation of the new law released Saturday by China’s official Xinhua News Agency says a new national security commission supervised by the Chinese government will be established in Hong Kong, and Chinese security agents will be stationed in the city to deal directly with some cases there.
The national security law seems almost tailor made for Lai. After he met U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington in July last year to discuss Hong Kong’s political crisis, the Chinese foreign ministry lambasted the meeting as a “foreign forces’ intervention.”
The Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, accused Lai of “disseminating separatist rhetoric” that “endangers national security” and “subverts the regime.” The August commentary also accused him of being “a running dog of the Western hostile forces”, “a pawn of the United States” and “a traitor” selling out on China’s interests. It ominously warned: “Be mindful of the settling of accounts in due course.”
Does Lai worry that apart from the charges he now faces, which could land him in jail for a maximum of five years, the authorities would jail him using the more draconian national security law, which is in the process of being legislated in Beijing?
“I’ll fight on until I can’t anymore,” said Lai. “If we fear, then there is no way we can do anything … it’s not the time to be careful, it’s the time to be brave.”
With the national security law looming, worries abound whether many of Hong Kong’s publications will remain free to publish criticisms of the government. Civil liberties, including freedoms of the press and speech, are guaranteed to publications under Hong Kong’s postcolonial mini constitution, the Basic Law. There are now widespread fears, though, that China’s vaguely defined national security charges used to jail dissidents on the mainland soon will be applied to Hong Kong’s government critics.
Lai has long been seen as a thorn in the sides of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, with his free-wheeling Apple Daily, well known for its criticism of the authorities.
Asked whether he will have to wind down the 25-year-old newspaper, Lai vowed to continue to run it “until the last day.”
“I don't know [when] the last day is,” he said. “If they jail me, the business will go on until it can’t go on.”
Lai has long been a target of intimidation. He said he had for years been stalked by people of unknown identity. Last September, two masked men threw firebombs at the gate of his home, repeating a similar incident in 2015 when both his home and his office also were attacked by firebombs. Over the past week, his car has been closely tailed by several cars driven by unidentified people.
“I'm sure I'm a target. But that doesn't mean that I have to be frightened,” he said. “They’re just making a lot of noise, a lot of intimidation, just to frighten you.”
Asked whether he believed Hong Kong’s protest movement has gone too far because a year on, the authorities have come up with a much more draconian law than the extradition bill that sparked the initial unrest, Lai did not agree. He lamented that the authorities’ hardened attitudes have done nothing to diffuse crises.
“The only way they react is to suppress [and] to clamp down with police violence,” he said. “A few million people have come out to resist [but] they never asked why and tried to solve it. Instead [they] just suppress, suppress, suppress.”
Protests were peaceful when they started in June last year, but as frustrations toward the government grew, and resentment against police brutality built, they turned increasingly violent.
The government belatedly withdrew the extradition bill four months later, but protesters refused to stop, as they demanded that the government launch an independent investigation into police violence and provide amnesty for those arrested. Nearly 9,000 have been arrested since June last year, and the Chinese and Hong Kong governments repeatedly emphasized the need for harder measures against “rioters.”
Lai believes China is acting tough on Hong Kong because it is facing the worst economic and social crises in decades. It is under unprecedented international scrutiny amid its strained relationship with the United States and industrialized nations, he said, and this added to its woes, as China’s economy has been hard hit by the coronavirus crisis.
“The worse the internal situation is, the more they need outside [perceived] enemies to unite the people … so [they would] forget the hardship they face internally,” he said.
Lai also believes Xi is taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to act tough while western countries are preoccupied with fighting against the disease. Lai said Xi also needs to prove his competence and reaffirm his life mandate to his people, after many of his trademark projects, such as “One Belt, One Road” and the “Made in China 2025” plan — which seeks to transform the country from being a low-end manufacturer to high-tech producer — ran into difficulties.
Having escaped to Hong Kong from China via Macau in a stowaway fishing boat when he was 12, Lai has a deeper insight into the Chinese Communist Party than many. He believes its current approach will hurt not only Hong Kong but itself.
“The problem with a system that concentrates all the power on the emperor is that you make stupid decisions because the people surrounding you will only second guess what you want, instead of telling you what is true,” he said.
“Xi is thinking about not just being the emperor of China, but the emperor of the world,” he said. “I think Xi Jinping is somebody who just doesn't have a worldly perspective … he’s Mao Zedong incarnated.”
China’s recent “wolf warrior” diplomacy has made itself many enemies, but Lai believes it cannot win with the western nations reacting to its aggressive approach.
“If they go on the way that was set out by Xi Jinping, definitely, China cannot go on for a very long time, because the world will be forced to isolate it or decouple with it. China has to change to adapt to the rule of the world,” he said.
“China has never faced a world so scrutinizing. Before, the world was very friendly to China because China is a big market, it is also the factory of the world. Now, I think the world is reconsidering its dependence on China,” he said.
Lai said Xi has overlooked the importance of Hong Kong to China’s broader economic interest.
“He thinks China is just so great and Hong Kong is only about 3 percent of their economy. But he forgets ... that a lot of the investment in China has to go through Hong Kong. The contracts have to be signed in Hong Kong, because it is the only place that has the rule of law to protect the contracts. Without this place, a lot of the contracts would not be signed.”
“He's killing Hong Kong ... the goose that lays golden eggs,” he said.
Lai hopes that international pressure would force China at least to water down the national security law, but so far, China has shown no signs of backing down. Hours after China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Pompeo concluded their meeting Wednesday in Hawaii, the draft national security law was put before the standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), its top lawmaking body. The details of the draft law were released Saturday by the Chinese state media on Saturday.
Lai said the law will spell the end of Hong Kong, as people will either emigrate or learn to live a subservient life.
“For those like us who stay, we'll fight on, but it will be a very feeble fight,” he said. “Less people will stay to fight with us, and those who don’t leave, they would just have to accept life like in China, to become subservient citizens and do whatever the government dictates.
“Hong Kong will be finished, definitely. I have no doubt about it,” he sighed.