Religion & Liberty Online

The Trial of Jimmy Lai

(Image credit: Associated Press)

Hong Kong’s biggest freedom fighter is about to stand trial. Here’s what you need to know.

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Jimmy Lai is no ordinary political protester. The 76-year-old Hong Kong entrepreneur and newspaper publisher has sat in solitary confinement in 35-pound handcuffs for more than 1,000 days as he prepares for the trial of his life. On one side are Lai and his defenders. On the other side is the Chinese Communist Party, preparing to keep Jimmy in prison for the rest of his life for the crime of defying Xi Jinping and standing up for democracy in his home, Hong Kong. As the trial begins, here’s the three things you need to know about the CCP’s war against Hong Kong’s most outspoken freedom fighter.

  1. Lai is innocent of any real crime.

Jimmy Lai is being charged under the Chinese Communist Party’s National Security Law (NSL), enacted in 2020 in the wake of pro-democracy protests across Hong Kong. Under the NSL, Lai faces three specific charges: two counts of colluding with foreign countries/elements and one count of colluding with foreign forces. Lai’s pro-democracy work took him beyond the borders of Hong Kong and outside CCP jurisdiction, including meeting with such U.S. officials as Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019.

The collusion charges against Lai betray the CCP’s true motive: to punish democracy advocates by weaponizing the broad statutes of the NSL. Lai’s only crime, and the only crimes of his colleagues at the Apple Daily newspaper Lai published, is participating in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. If the CCP can achieve a trial victory over Lai, it can do so with every pro-democracy voice left in Hong Kong.

  1. Lai’s trial may determine the future of the rule of law in Hong Kong.

Lai’s trial is the highest profile trial to happen under the NSL since it was imposed in Hong Kong.

The CCP’s pushback in the Lai trial has included denying Lai the legal representation of his choice: British King’s Counsel Timothy Owen. A veteran of the U.K.’s legal system specializing in international law, human rights, and political protest, Owen has drawn opposition from not only the CCP’s advocates in Beijing but also Hong Kong’s Department of Justice, including senior counsel Paul Lam.

The move to block Owen from defending Lai is not simply a quibble over international lawyers in the country’s complex legal scheme, but a desire to maintain the CCP’s stranglehold on Hong Kong’s entire legal process. In blocking Lai from being represented by an advocate of his choosing, the CCP has succeeded in shutting out international lawyers and has further eroded Hong Kong’s past degree of legal freedom that once allowed democracy to flourish in the country.

  1. If Lai is convicted, Hong Kong’s independence may be gone forever.

Since the 1980s, Hong Kong was governed by the “one country, two systems” policy that allowed the 7.5 million­–strong city to maintain its capitalist economic system as a special administrative region of China, which is ruled by the Communist Party and whose own economy is a unique blend of highly centralized and market capitalistic practices. Since the passage of the National Security Law, however, China’s crackdown against democracy advocates like Lai has illustrated the current CCP regime’s readiness to ignore the two-systems policy.

What happens to Jimmy Lai is of international significance. Beginning today, one of Hong Kong’s greatest champions goes on trial against a totalitarian regime dedicated to destroying everything he represents. Nothing less than economic freedom, democracy, basic human rights, and the rule of law are at stake.

The Hong Konger, the Acton Institute’s new award-winning documentary, tells the story of Jimmy Lai’s heroic struggle against dictatorial Beijing and its erosion of human rights in Hong Kong. Banned by TikTok, the film premiered worldwide at on April 18, 2023, and is available in full on YouTube here.

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting on American politics and higher education. His work has been published in a plethora of outlets, including the Christian Post, The Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, as well as interviews for New York Times Opinion and the American Enterprise Institute. He studies political science at Grove City College. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.