“In these past 30 years, Hong Kong has truly accepted me and I thank the city from the bottom of my heart. I cannot abandon this home. As long as I am allowed to live here, I will stay. It would be cowardly to flee because of fear,” Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, told Japanese writer Eikan Kyū in an interview before the colonial city was returned to China in 1997.
More than two decades later, the media mogul has stayed true to his commitment even as it landed him in prison. Having been held in custody for more than 90 days, Lai faces a growing stack of charges, including fraud and collusion with foreign forces under the national security law. Among nine pro-democracy figures found guilty of participating in and organizing an unauthorised assembly in August 2019, he was officially convicted on Thursday.
For the 73-year-old, who is a devoted Catholic, his faith provides the strength to face the challenges ahead. He has been surprisingly calm and well-adjusted to the months-long detention. Even with chains tied around his waist, he treasures every court appearance, where he can exchange glances and smiles with his family.
Lai was born in 1948 in Guangzhou to a family of wealthy landowners, who saw their properties confiscated by the Chinese Communist Party. His father fled to Hong Kong amid political persecution, while his mother was taken to labor camps. As a child, Lai scavenged and sold illegal cigarettes to feed his sisters. When the country was hit by famine in the late 1950s, he escaped to Hong Kong as a stowaway at the age of 12 with only a dollar in his pocket.
On the second day of his arrival, he got a job at a glove factory on Fuk Wing Street, beginning his career in manufacturing and working his way up from an apprentice to a manager. In 1975, the 26-year-old set out as an entrepreneur and established his own textile factory along with two partners. Six years later, he began his foray in the retail industry and founded the Hong Kong clothing brand, Giordano, which rapidly expanded into a chain after a drastic reform.
Lai could have retired in his 40s, but the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 set his life on a different trajectory. “You must live remembering the shame of June Fourth. Even as the country celebrates its prosperity, you must hold on to this torch in a dark corner,” Lai wrote to his children on the 20th anniversary of the event.
A year after the bloody crackdown in Beijing, Lai founded Next Magazine in Hong Kong and withdrew his business from China. Because of his belief that a free flow of information would push China towards democracy, Lai started Apple Daily, a newspaper that stands firm on the universal values of democracy and freedom.
The paper remains fiercely critical of the authorities, even as other media outlets in Hong Kong are gradually undermined and bought up by Chinese corporations. Advertising revenues plummeted amid the political pressure and the newsroom was raided by nearly 200 police officers in August 2020, a month after Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong. “I will stay and fight till the last day,” Lai pledged, even as he was taken away in handcuffs.
“If we give up on the fight for freedom and justice, we also surrender our dignity as humans,” he wrote on the 20th anniversary of Apple Daily in 2015. “Your life is not about yourself.” And six years on, the rebel tycoon still holds fast to his belief and remains defiant against oppression, even at the price of his own freedom.
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