Jimmy Lai

A rebellious stowaway boy who became one of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy protesters

Jimmy Lai arrived in Hong Kong from China aged 12 as a stowaway on a fishing boat. He found work with a garment manufacturer and started his career on just USD8 a month.

He soon set about educating himself, reading voraciously as he was rapidly promoted to factory manager. In 1975 he took his earnings and purchased a garment factory of his own, launching fashion business Giordano in 1981. It was an astounding success.

Yet when China sent tanks to massacre student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Lai began down a new path as a pro-democracy activist. Giordano printed shirts emblazoned with anti-communist slogans and Lai started writing columns critical of the CCP.

When China responded by trying to shut his stores, Lai established Next Media and founded Apple Daily, an unashamedly pro-democracy paper which became one of Hong Kong’s biggest. It has been banned in China since its inception in 1995.

Lai’s refusal to toe the party line earned him the ire of authorities, who have branded him a “black hand” for his activism. He has been targeted for assassination and his home firebombed several times. A pro-Beijing paper even published a fake obituary for him, claiming he died of cancer.

Jimmy Lai at Apple Daily's offices. (WSJ)

None of these threats stopped Lai speaking out. He was arrested as part of the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and marched during the anti-extradition law protests of 2019-20.

When Hong Kong’s legislative council passed the new national security law in June 2020, Lai warned it was a “death knell” for the territory. It would soon become clear that he was one of its main targets.

Lai was arrested under the security law on August 10th 2020 for alleged collusion with foreign forces and fraud. His home was searched and the offices of Apple Daily raided.

He was arrested again in early December and charged with conspiring to endanger national security. The only evidence presented was television interviews and tweets where Lai called on Western countries to defend Hong Kong’s democracy by sanctioning some local officials. 

He has been imprisoned since and convicted of two counts of unlawful assembly relating to his participation in peaceful protests. His remaining charges carry a maximum term of life imprisonment – for the crime of defending democracy.

Lai is undeterred. Instead he says that now “is the time to stand tall.”

He recently pleaded not guilty to a further charge of unlawful assembly, this time for attending a vigil in memory of the massacre that drove him into politics in the first place.

Jimmy Lai joins protests. (Reuters)

Jimmy Lai’s Judicial Harassment

20th June 2020 – Hong Kong’s new national security law passes the territory’s legislative council. 

10th August 2020 – Jimmy Lai arrested for alleged collusion with foreign forces and fraud. His home is searched and the offices of Apple Daily are raided by police.

2nd December 2020 – Lai returns to a police station as a condition of the bail for his August charge, only to be arrested on further groundless suspicions of fraud.

11th December 2020 – Lai is charged with conspiring with foreign forces to endanger national security on evidence drawn from his Twitter account.

23rd December 2020 – Lai is granted bail but placed under house arrest, permitted to give no interviews, nor make any statements, and asked to report to police three times a week.

31st December 2020 – Hong Kong authorities appeal and reverse the decision to grant Lai bail. He is ordered back to imprisonment after only a week under house arrest.

16th February 2021 – Lai is arrested while already in prison on a further security charge. He is accused of helping other activists escape Hong Kong to Taiwan.

1st April 2021 – Lai is convicted of unlawful assembly in relation to his participation in the 2019 protests and sentenced to 14 months imprisonment.

28th May 2021 – Lai is convicted of another count of unlawful assembly and sentenced to a further 14 months in prison.

1st November 2021 – Lai pleads not guilty to a third count of unlawful assembly, this time related to his attendance of a vigil commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Jimmy Lai is arrested in August 2020. (AFP/Getty Images)