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OPINION | Jimmy Lai, a man for all seasons

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TAPED on the wall by my desk is a photo of Jimmy Lai in handcuffs.

It was taken a week ago, the day 200 Hong Kong police raided his Apple Daily newspaper and arrested him. It is my most treasured photo of Jimmy, who also happens to be my godson, having been baptized in 1997 just before the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. The point is that though the handcuffs were intended to humiliate him, every man, woman and child in Hong Kong saw them for what they were: a badge of honor.

 

Soon Jimmy will go to trial on charges from sedition to colluding with foreign powers. It’s utter rot, of course. If he finds himself facing prison, it is only because Communist China, for all its size and power, fears any Chinese who insists on speaking the truth.

 

In this way Jimmy might be thought of as Hong Kong’s Thomas More, the difference being that while King Henry VIII wanted More to speak up, Beijing wants Jimmy to shut up. In the more than two decades since Hong Kong was handed back to China, most Hong Kong elites have cut their consciences to accommodate their new overlords.

 

Which leaves Jimmy Lai and his printing press as Hong Kong’s single most important counter to official propaganda.

 

If Jimmy’s message resonates, it is in good part because his story is Hong Kong’s story. He arrived from mainland China on his own, a stowaway in the bottom of a fishing boat. In a city built by Chinese refugees, he raised himself from a scruffy teenager to the founder of a highly popular clothing chain, and then proprietor of Hong Kong’s highly popular Next magazine and Apple Daily newspaper.

 

Since the handover his fight has been to keep intact a Hong Kong that showed what ordinary Chinese might accomplish if just given the freedom. That was also Beijing’s promise under the one-country-two-systems formula. In the early days leading up to Hong Kong’s return to China there was even talk of “the tail wagging the dog” — that is, China following Hong Kong’s lead. But once Beijing got its hands on Hong Kong, it acted to ensure only one of these systems would survive: China’s.

 

Once, Jimmy was bashed on the head with a wrench during a fight with robbers who’d invaded his home. When one tried to take his wife Teresa’s wedding ring, Jimmy shouted so sternly the guy quickly put it back on her finger. The point is that it is Jimmy’s nature to fight back, even when most everyone else would consider the situation hopeless. I love him for that.

 

As a billionaire, Jimmy could easily have escaped arrest and an almost certain prison sentence. He could have trimmed Apple’s editorial sails, sold it off, or simply remained at one of his residences abroad where the authorities couldn’t touch him.

 

But anyone who thought this a real possibility doesn’t know Jimmy Lai. He is where he is today because he chose handcuffs and arrest rather than run away or abandon his convictions. All Hong Kong knows this. They also know that if even a billionaire isn’t safe, no one is.

 

And yet Jimmy sees himself as blessed. Maybe it’s because in Teresa he has in his corner a woman who has always sensed that arrest was his destiny, that this is exactly what she signed up for the day she agreed to be take him as her husband. How wonderful it would have been had some miracle intervened to deliver them from the terrible crossroads at which they have now arrived.

 

But the faith Jimmy and Teresa share does not promise happy outcomes. It promises only that when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we are not alone. Already the Lais would tell you there’s nothing quite so overwhelming as learning that thousands across the world — people they don’t know and will never meet — are praying for them.

 

In Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons,” Thomas More has this exchange with his nemesis, Thomas Cromwell, chief minister for Henry VIII. Word for word Cromwell is the perfect stand-in for Beijing’s ham-fisted approach to Jimmy, with much the same punch line:

 

More: You threaten like a dockside bully.

 

Cromwell: How should I threaten?

 

More: Like a minister of state, with justice!

 

Cromwell: Oh, justice is what you’re threatened with.

 

More: Then I am not threatened.

 

So I return to the photo of my godson in handcuffs. In any just society, Jimmy Lai would not be threatened. But Hong Kong is no longer such a society. In its place we are left with the powerful witness of a good man willing to give up everything except his principles, even if it means trading in the life of a billionaire for the prison cell of a Chinese dissident.

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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