Hong Kong was once a beacon of opportunity, of democracy. It was a political refuge, a blip in a territory controlled by communist China.
Seemingly overnight, 7.5 million Hong Kongers have had their freedoms stripped from them by an oppressive Chinese regime intent silencing any voice of dissent — and that doesn’t mean revoking the odd Twitter account. It means imprisonment and death.
In spite of this risk, Hong Kong’s most prominent billionaire, Lai Chee-ying, better known as Jimmy Lai, has given up a life of comfort to become a dissident.
“All I have, this place gave me,” Lai said of his beloved Hong Kong.
Lai sought the light of Hong Kong as a young man, fleeing communist China as a 12-year-old refugee with nothing. After getting off the boat Lai immediately went to a textile factory, where he worked and slept.
He was poor. He was free. He was happy.
For the first time in his life, Lai knew he had a future. He capitalized on the abundance of opportunities Hong Kong presented him, and by age 59, Lai was a billionaire. He accrued his wealth by building a wildly successful clothing and media businesses.
But as the threat of Chinese control over all aspects of life in Hong Kong grew more and more dire, Lai knew that his was not the legacy he needed to preserve — it was Hong Kong he needed to fight for.
“If I go on making money, it doesn’t mean anything to me. If I go into the media business … I can deliver choice. And choice is freedom,” Lai said.
He’s been arrested three times. Apple Daily, the newspaper that Lai built from the ground up and that became the leading pro-democracy voice in Hong Kong, has been shuttered for violating far-reaching Chinese Communist Party rules that allow the CCP to silence dissent.
Lai could have kept his billions and spent his retirement enjoying the fruits of his labor. As a citizen of the United Kingdom, he could have fled Hong Kong altogether. Instead, he chose to fight.
And it’s a fight that matters, not just for the 7.5 million Hong Kongers whose freedoms have been stripped from them, but also for the world.
The specter of Chinese communism has failed to capture the attention of average Americans, perhaps because of that country’s distance from their everyday lives, or perhaps, ironically, because its goods are so pervasive that they’ve come to see China as an inevitable part of their lives. But anyone who cares about human rights cannot ignore the CCP’s absolute disregard for the value of human life.
The People’s Republic of China commits genocide against the Uighurs, an ethnic minority of Muslims that has been forced into slave labor and re-education camps.
The CCP has squelched any semblance of freedom of speech among its own people, frequently rounding up dissenters and anyone deemed problematic, jailing or killing them.
Lai fled this terror when he hopped in the bottom of a boat heading for an unknown place decades back. But now that terror is back and worse than ever.
Lai has participated in many protests against the CCP and always had one requirement: He wanted to stand in the front, where officials could see him.
Today, Lai fights for his freedom from behind bars. On Dec. 13, he was sentenced to 13 months in prison over his participation in a banned vigil for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. This is on top of the 14-month sentence he received on May 28 for helping to organize an unauthorized pro-democracy rally, and in addition to the six months he had already served.
He is still awaiting a third trial for alleged violations of the CCP’s national security laws, which are so broad as to allow the government to use them in any way it sees fit to silence dissent.
Nevertheless, Lai remains strongly rooted: first in his fervent Catholic faith, and second in his unshakable support of freedom.
The Chinese government wants him silenced, but Jimmy Lai’s fight in Hong Kong is far from done.
“Even if they kill me, I will fight to the last day,” Lai said.
This article originally appeared in The Detroit News on Dec. 30, 2021