Apple Daily Special Edition

I Want to See My Friend, Jimmy Lai

By Mark Simon
Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai is arrested in August 2020 in what he describes as an effort to show the territory's new national security law has "teeth". (Getty Images)

I have worked directly for Jimmy Lai, reporting to no other, since May of 2001. Rarely a dull day, and in that time I was always amazed, and remain so, even with him in prison for political crimes, at the new levels of selfless actions from my boss.

Some probably know the story of Mr. Lai, smuggled from China over to Hong Kong in the bottom of a boat when he was 12. The very same day he arrived in Hong Kong he went to work in a garment factory. These days I often think of my friend as that 12 year old, alone, sleeping on a factory floor.

I make this point, because I’m not certain even the Communists who have him imprisoned understand the fires in which Jimmy Lai was forged.

My boss, and my friend, is one of the smartest, wisest, and most cheerful men I know.  But at his core, he is that tough kid on a factory floor.  He is a happy warrior, not seeking a fight, but a man who will bound into the just fight with enthusiasm.

Apple Daily opened up in 1995.  But to really understand what happened with Apple Daily you have to understand Mr. Lai’s very first major publication, Next Magazine.  Founded in 1988, before the Tiananmen massacre, Next was something Hong Kong had never seen. Hard-hitting, free market politics, pro-democracy, and absolutely no desire to have any friends in the establishment.  Apple Daily followed the same route as Next, except daily.

To give the CCP their due, they know a threat when they see it. From 1997 to 2021 a variety of activists rolled through Hong Kong. But there was one constant, one thing that gave all these activists oxygen and public space. Jimmy Lai.

Yes, that’s a fairly big claim. Yet since 1995 there has been no major democratic movement that was not propelled along by Apple Daily. But don’t take my word for it, look at the advertising boycotts, the bank boycotts, the firebombs, and now jail.

Jimmy Lai is in jail because he believes in freedom, because he believes in a free press, because he believes in religious freedom, because he believes in an individual’s economic freedoms, and most of all because Jimmy Lai believes no man or woman reigns above others.

Jimmy has always understood that tyrants have to wipe out all freedoms to enforce their control over others. More than a few times he told me that what we have to defend at Apple Daily is not just one freedom, but rather a “basket of freedoms”.  We defend one kind of freedom to protect all freedoms.

It’s this defense of all freedoms I hope you all will all consider when thinking of Jimmy Lai. Jimmy is a rich man who wants no tax or economic shackles on the poor man. He is a powerful man who believes he has no power over others. Jimmy thinks of the freedoms he values as no greater, nor any smaller, than the freedoms others cherish.

I have walked with Jimmy through the streets of Hong Kong, London, New York, Paris, and Niagara on the Lake, in Canada. On those walks Jimmy didn’t see buildings or streets. He saw people living their lives, and it filled him with energy and hope.

For me, I saw that 12 year old boy, who was smuggled to Hong Kong in the bottom of a boat, who slept on a factory floor, who overcame all odds, a free man, happy among free people.

For years Jimmy knew it would be his end if the communists took full control of Hong Kong.  Dozens of times he told me he knew he would go to jail. When I would protest he should get out, and others told him to leave, his response was always the same. I can’t leave the people of Hong Kong.

I miss my friend. I miss our talks. I am in agony for his family.  I cannot write Jimmy as I am wanted and my letters never seem to make it through. Yet I know he treasures hearing from friends both old and new. It’s my hope that as many of you as possible will take the time to do something very rare these days, post a letter. Please post my friend a letter. Let him know you will use your freedom to try to secure his.

Mark Simon is a former Apple Daily columnist and executive.