As Beijing cracks down, Jimmy Lai, the publisher of Apple Daily, explains why he’s determined not to leave and why he thinks Xi Jinping is overreaching.
Jillian Kay Melchior
ILLUSTRATION: KEN FALLIN
Residents of this city love their home and their freedom. China’s latest intrusion threatens both, forcing Hong Kong residents to contemplate an imminent future when they’ll have to abandon one to cling to the other. Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon who’s been called “the Rupert Murdoch of Asia,” seems almost hurt when I ask which he will choose.
“I’ve been one of the troublemakers. I can’t just make trouble and then leave,” he says. “No, we will stay. Our media will stay until the last day—until they either close me or close our business, or arrest me or whatever.”
Mr. Lai, 71, has been making trouble for the Chinese government since the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. He’s financially supported Hong Kong’s pro-democracy political parties and founded the pro-democracy Next magazine in 1990 and Apple Daily in 1995. The publications have criticized the Chinese Communist Party and its influence over Hong Kong politics. When Britain handed the territory’s sovereignty to Beijing in 1997, Hong Kong was designated a special administrative region, supposedly governed under the principle “one country, two systems.” But since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, Beijing has grown even less tolerant of Hong Kong’s independence.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is now pushing a bill through the Legislative Council that would authorize the local government to extradite to mainland China persons deemed fugitives by Beijing, including Hong Kong residents and foreigners. “If she can do it, she can actually hand over Hong Kong to Xi Jinping, in a cage,” Mr. Lai says. “There will be a big reward for her.”
The fugitive law would mean “that the Chinese so-called judiciary system is going to replace Hong Kong’s,” Mr. Lai says. Beijing could “nab anybody from here to put in a Chinese jail” and subject him to unfair trial, arbitrary detention, and worse. Chinese officials could use the power to shake down businessmen. Pro-democracy activists, religious practitioners, lawyers, journalists and booksellers would visit or live in Hong Kong at their own risk.
Mr. Lai would be an obvious target, but he doesn’t want to talk about that: “Why should I think about this? Why should I fear before the fear comes?” Already he has been conspicuously followed, targeted by hackers, and threatened by Hong Kong’s criminal gangs. In 2009 he was the target of a thwarted assassination plot. In 2013 someone left a hatchet and a knife outside his doorstep. In 2015 his house was firebombed. He still gets death threats.
If Mr. Lai has reason to feel vulnerable, so do thousands of Hong Kong people who lack his status, wealth and international mobility. Last Sunday more than a million people, roughly 1 in 7 residents, turned out to protest the extradition bill. On Wednesday thousands braved tear gas and rubber bullets to protest. The manicured streets and upscale shopping malls near the Legislative Council building resembled a war zone.
Ms. Lam has refused to withdraw the bill. Beijing has doubled down in its support, and Hong Kong’s protesters have doubled down in opposition. Is another Tiananmen Square in the offing?
Mr. Lai weighs the question. On the one hand, China’s rulers don’t care about human rights: “To them, Hong Kong is just a percentage of the total population in China, which is just 0.5%. They don’t look at us as a people.” On the other hand, a brutal televised crackdown would look bad: “When you’re sure that the whole world is watching, you have to think twice.” Still, “it’s not totally impossible.”
Mr. Lai believes Mr. Xi is more vulnerable than he looks. Since 1949 the Chinese Communist Party has been a game of thrones, with the toughest political operators prevailing. But Mr. Xi abolished presidential term limits, concentrating power like no leader since Mao. Mr. Lai likens him to a king or emperor presiding over a feudal system: “The government becomes a court government, the same as in the old times.” That makes enemies of those shut out of power: “Whenever they see opportunity, they will fight back.”
Mr. Lai describes Mr. Xi as “definitely a hard-core Communist” who looks especially strong because technology gives him “a power of controlling the people unprecedented in human history.” China is creating a surveillance state, using high-tech to track faces, movement and associations.
But Mr. Lai believes Mr. Xi is overreaching: “When you have concentrated all the power on yourself, you’re also concentrating all the responsibility on yourself. Every mistake becomes your mistake. When you have shared power, you have shared responsibility.” Mr. Lai doesn’t rule out an internal coup because Mr. Xi is holding “an impossible job.”
Mr. Lai says China runs on an implicit social contract in which the Communist Party denies the people political liberty but offers economic prosperity. That bargain has come under threat as the U.S. and Europe grow weary of Beijing’s abuses of the international order and cyber and intellectual-property theft. Then came Donald Trump, who “understands the Chinese like no president understood,” Mr. Lai says. “I think he’s very good at dealing with gangsters.”
China’s Communists are “materialists,” Mr. Lai says, whereas the old Soviet Union at least had an ideology. The problem for the Chinese is that communism “has been debunked,” Mr. Lai says, while the West still has its moral authority, expressed in rule of law and respect for human rights. Mr. Lai sees a clash of civilizations and believes Western values will prevail.
China’s investment initiative, known as One Belt, One Road, is running into trouble because of its values—or rather its lack of them. Beijing assumed that foreign leaders would accept loans at usurious rates if they could take a cut or use it for their own political purposes. But Mr. Lai says Mr. Xi failed to understand that citizens would feel enraged when they learned of corrupt dealings that left their countries in hock to Beijing.
Similarly, with the extradition legislation, Mr. Xi counts on Hong Kong’s leaders to sell out their own people for political advancement. But Mr. Lai says Beijing fails to appreciate how the British imparted a reverence for the rule of law to the colony they ruled beginning in 1842. “For us, colonialism was something that was a gift by God because we were the only Chinese who had freedom,” Mr. Lai says.
China is betting on might, he says, while Hong Kong is betting on right: “We don’t have weapons. We don’t have raw power.” But Hong Kongers do have a lot to lose. Young people were the backbone of this week’s protests, but they don’t have the money or the ability to immigrate. “They’re stuck. The only alternative is to fight.” The challenge is to keep that fight peaceful.
Mr. Lai speaks admiringly of Christians who stood between protesters and police on Sunday, singing hymns to ease tension. On Wednesday younger protesters stockpiled bricks, which older activists sat on to prevent the youngsters from hurling them at police. “We have nothing except our moral power, which is exactly what the Chinese government doesn’t have,” Mr. Lai says. “That’s exactly where we can win.”
Yet his mood shifts from optimistic to bleak as he admits that unless Mr. Xi is ousted, the best possible outcome is delay. “Beijing obviously intends “to take total control of our freedom,” Mr. Lai says. Even if the extradition bill is somehow stopped, “Hong Kong is doomed, because the intention is there.”
Hong Kong nonetheless presents more than one dilemma for Mr. Xi. A reputation for the rule of law made it a global financial capital. “So if our rule of law is undermined, our financial center status would be sickened,” Mr. Lai says. The extradition bill has also created a new generation of activists committed to Hong Kong’s self-government. Given the booming business between China and Hong Kong, it’s harder for Beijing to control information about the protests from spreading inside China.
Hong Kong’s relative freedom also attracts wealthy people from the mainland. “They come here to buy real estate—not just for the real estate,” Mr. Lai says. “By buying real estate and staying here, they’re also buying the rule of law, the safety of their life, the freedom, the human-rights protection.”
Mr. Lai’s own riches-to-rags-to-riches family history testifies to that allure. His parents had amassed wealth in the shipping industry, but his family was “very progressive,” so that “my father actually tried to help the Communists.” They paid the family back by confiscating its wealth. His father wanted to flee, but the Communists wrongly suspected he had money hidden abroad. He had to borrow money from Hong Kong friends to buy permission to leave.
Once Mr. Lai’s father arrived in Hong Kong around 1951 or ’52, he was unable to pay his lenders back, so he hid, leaving his family including Jimmy in China. At age 11 Jimmy went to work in a railway station carrying baggage and heard tales of Hong Kong’s wealth and opportunity. He pestered his mother for a year to let him leave before she helped him get a permit for Macau, then a Portuguese colony. He made it to Hong Kong by stowing away in a fishing boat and he began work in a clothing factory that produced sweaters and gloves. He was 12.
“The rest is history,” Mr. Lai says. He became a manager at the factory, used his earnings to invest in the stock market, and bought his own garment factory at 27. Thus began Giordano, which Mr. Lai developed into an international clothing chain. After Tiananmen, Mr. Lai decided to go into media “because I thought media delivers information—information is freedom.” Where other publications self-censored, Next and Apple Daily criticized Beijing. Readers loved it.
Mr. Lai became a self-made billionaire by making the most of Hong Kong’s economic freedom and rule of law. He now faces the same choice his father once did: With the Chinese Communist Party in charge, should he stay or go? “I think those guys who think communism or socialism is cool again are those who have never had the history in their blood,” Mr. Lai says.
He has a British passport, but he says he would never flee Hong Kong. “If I do that, my kids, my grandkids would despise me. My wife will despise me.” Fighting for Hong Kong has become his life’s work. “How many years do I have to live, 20 years?” he asks. “Whatever happens, I will be here.”