Jimmy Lai is one of the Chinese Communist Party’s most prominent targets, and for good reason. The 75-year-old Hong Kong entrepreneur now sits shackled in solitary confinement for the crime of fighting for democracy. Lai’s freedom may now hang on his access to top international lawyers, which the CCP has sought to curtail at every step of the legal process. Yet Lai remains doggedly committed—if he can secure access to highly qualified legal professionals from around the world, his latest move could be a pivotal step in getting out of the prison he’s been forced to called home since December of 2020.
If Lai, who gained international attention as a key figure in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in 2019/20, gets his lawyers, he still faces a difficult road to freedom. Under Beijing’s National Security Law, enacted in 2020 after a surge in pro-democracy protests across Hong Kong, he faces two counts of conspiracy with foreign forces and one count of foreign collusion. These charges could keep Lai in prison until his death.
As Lai fights to secure his release, a key hope for his legal team is veteran U.K. human rights lawyer Timothy Owen, a specialist in international law and the rights of political protestors. Although the Hong Kong High Court initially approved Owen’s admission, the Hong Kong government created massive pushback, arguing that allowing overseas lawyers in national security trials posed threats to Chinese state secrets. A decision from Beijing came in December: Hong Kong had the authority to bar overseas lawyers, and therefore Owen, from trials like Lai’s. Lai’s team has made their next move: they seek to quash the Beijing legislature’s judgment and maintain the possibility of admitting Lai’s star lawyer from the United Kingdom.
It’s a risky business. For Lai’s team to be successful, the CCP would have to cease its sweeping expansion of its national security powers in Hong Kong. The team argues that “the whole judicial administration would collapse” if such expansion continues, yet the Beijing legislature seems committed to continuing its persecution of Lai. The former entrepreneur has become a symbol of fierce pro-democracy resistance to Xi Jinping’s regime. As such, he’s still a target; what started for Lai as a mere judicial proceeding has become an example of one man’s struggle against totalitarianism. When his trial resumes, Lai’s freedom and life are hanging in the balance.
The Hong Konger, the Acton Institute’s new documentary, tells the story of Jimmy Lai’s heroic struggle against authoritarian Beijing and its erosion of human rights in Hong Kong. The film premieres worldwide at freejimmylai.com on April 18, 2023, at 8pm ET.