While 2020 was a year of serious challenges, tragedies, and divisions, there were some bright spots. In this blog series, the IWF team looks back at the year’s highlights, silver linings, and redeeming themes as we countdown the days to 2021.
In a year when freedom has come under growing siege in many places around the globe, I am grateful for the many brave souls who have stood up, sometimes at great personal cost, for liberty and justice. Nowhere has such heroism been more vividly on display than in Hong Kong, where China has reneged on its promise of 50 years of rights and freedoms, and under the excuse of pandemic restrictions and by way of a crushing new “National Security Law,” is trying to grind down Hong Kong’s people into servants of China’s totalitarian system.
It’s a grim scene to watch, even from afar (non-residents have been banned from entry to Hong Kong since March). But great troubles sometimes bring to the fore the heroes among us. On that score, Hong Kong is home to many of the most inspiring people I have ever known. They are facing the world’s most powerful tyranny, they have no real protection against the bruising crackdown with which China has answered Hong Kong’s protests last year for freedom and democracy. But they are doing what they can, in a determined rearguard action to try to save whatever they can of the vibrant free society they have built.
Which brings me to Jimmy Lai, who has long been one of Hong Kong’s most prominent voices for democracy, now its most prominent political prisoner. As William McGurn wrote in The Wall Street Journal in August, Jimmy’s story “is Hong Kong’s story.”
Born in China shortly before Mao’s 1949 communist revolution, Jimmy arrived in Hong Kong as a 12-year-old, smuggling himself to freedom aboard a fishing boat. In Hong Kong, then a lively British colony, its liberty and law protected by British democracy, Jimmy made his fortune. He worked his way up from impoverished teenager to wealthy founder of a major clothing chain.
Grateful for the freedom he had found in Hong Kong, Jimmy dedicated himself to defending it. In 1995, two years before the British handed over Hong Kong to China, Jimmy founded a hugely popular newspaper, the pro-democracy Apple Daily. For the past quarter century, Jimmy has stood up for the rights, freedoms and genuine democracy that China promised to Hong Kong. He has also spoken out over many years about the basic right to freedom of all people in mainland China—a right denied to them by China’s communist government. On his Twitter page, he has two mottoes: “God bless Hong Kong” and “God bless Taiwan”—Taiwan being home to a free and democratic China.
An argument Jimmy has made again and again, as he did last year in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, is that “the world will never know genuine peace until the people of China are free.” In that article, in words he has repeated many times in many venues, he reminded the world that Hong Kong stands on the front line of China’s threats to freedom: “we are fighting your battle.”
Now 73 years old, Jimmy is facing trial this coming spring on an array of charges that could translate into spending the rest of his life in prison, possibly in mainland China. Arrested repeatedly this year, paraded by the authorities in chains and handcuffs, he was jailed earlier this month, and spent almost three weeks in prison before being allowed out on bail, under house arrest, and on condition he says nothing in public. As I write this, Hong Kong prosecutors are demanding he be returned to prison to spend months awaiting trial. China’s People’s Daily, a state-run propaganda newspaper, also calling for Jimmy to be hustled immediately back to prison, has warned that mainland authorities could take over his case.
Jimmy did not have to suffer any of this. He had the resources to leave Hong Kong, and the wisdom, as China tightened the screws, to see what was coming. He chose to stay in Hong Kong, he chose to continue speaking out, he chose to become a figure whose defiance and love of freedom could inspire and help rally others, in Hong Kong and around the world.
Like many, I count it a blessing to know him, and I am grateful for the example he sets for us all. In the face of the menace emanating from China’s ruling communist party, in the face of the brutalizing of Hong Kong, the threats to Taiwan, the plague and despotic schemes bedeviling the world, Jimmy chose his place on the front line of freedom, and has stood his ground.
The newspaper he founded, Apple Daily, has long been hugely popular in Hong Kong, published in Chinese, for the Cantonese-speaking people of the territory. But as China’s repression began rolling in full force, earlier this year, Jimmy and his colleagues launched an English-language web site, publishing news and opinion writing by some of Hong Kong’s bravest pro-democracy voices. It’s far from clear that Apple Daily will survive the onslaught of China’s repression. Earlier this year, police ransacked its offices, and along with Jimmy Lai, a number of its top executives have also been arrested. Jimmy’s message this month from prison, published on the Apple Daily English-language web site is: “Don’t worry, Apple Daily will continue until the very end.”
On December 21, the Apple site published a letter to Jimmy Lai, from a Hong Kong student who, alluding to the protesters’ emblematic color of yellow, described herself as “A little girl in yellow dress who loves Hong Kong forever.” Her message to Jimmy, an inspiration in itself, was the kind of simple verity that can help guide us all: “I thank you for putting your heart and soul into reporting the truth!”