Surely China’s Communist Party henchmen have enough on their hands, as they hustle to disappear outspoken bloggers, kick out Wall Street Journal reporters, and repurpose parts of the CCP’s vast machinery of surveillance and coercion to police President Xi Jinping’s “People’s War” on the deadly new coronavirus — which achieved ruinous breakout in Wuhan early last month, while China’s authorities were busy detaining and silencing the honest local doctors who tried to sound a warning. But when it comes to ramping up repression, there’s always time for more. On Friday, China’s satrap administration in Hong Kong arrested one of the city’s longtime leading advocates of democracy, 71-year-old newspaper owner Jimmy Lai.
Let’s be clear: Jimmy Lai is one of the world’s most clarion voices for freedom. In Hong Kong these days, that takes tremendous courage. Born in China, he came to Hong Kong at the age of 12, made his fortune in the garment industry, and in 1995 founded a pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily. Under British colonial rule, and under China’s increasingly heavy boot since the 1997 handover, Lai has argued the case for democracy, in person and in print, and turned out, again and again, to take part in peaceful protests. Earlier this month, Jimmy Lai published a superb op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, under the headline “China’s Facade of Stability,” spelling out that “the spread of the coronavirus has revealed a truth that poses a much greater risk to Mr. Xi: There is no cure for Chinese communism except the collapse of the party.” Noting that “Deception is China’s true rule of law,” and citing the silencing at a critical moment of the Wuhan doctors who tried to warn of the virus, Lai spelled out, “This is the problem now before the world: the rise of a Goliath-like China no one trusts.”
As if on cue, Lai has now been arrested. Though, officially he has not been charged with what is surely by standards of China’s Communist Party the real transgression: telling the world the truth, not only in his recent WSJ piece but in many venues, over many years. Perhaps it would be awkward for authorities to prosecute that as a crime? It would call attention to Lai’s compelling argument.
Nope. Instead, the dastardly Lai, along with two other prominent pro-democracy figures, is charged with taking part in an unauthorized assembly on August 31 of last year (conviction can bring a sentence of up to five years in prison). The assembly in question was a huge, peaceful protest march through the streets of Hong Kong — one of many last year, as millions of Hong Kongers demanded the rights and freedoms China promised them under treaty terms of the 1997 British handover. One of China’s state news agencies, Xinhua, has just put out a video, in which you can watch Jimmy Lai at this protest — he’s the guy in the blue baseball cap. Given that the point of the video is to vilify him, it’s reasonable to figure this was the most damning footage that ubiquitous surveillance could produce. It shows Lai walking peacefully through the heat and humidity of the Hong Kong summer weather, in the midst of a huge crowd of other protesters doing the same. (OK, I’ll grant you, he was inciting sartorial disorder: his t-shirt was untucked.)
Why was this march unauthorized? Because freedom of assembly in Hong Kong comes with the proviso that anyone who wishes to assemble or march in Hong Kong must apply for permission to the police. Because China has broken its promise of a transition to democracy in Hong Kong, the police don’t answer to Hong Kong’s people. They answer to China’s handpicked chief executive, who answers above all to Xi Jinping. That’s the setup under which Hong Kongers last year were finding it ever more difficult to obtain police permission to… ummm… freely assemble.
To be sure, what followed that peaceful August 31 afternoon protest on Hong Kong island were scenes, that evening, on the other side of Hong Kong’s harbor, of brutal violence. Carried out — mind you — by Hong Kong’s police. That evening is bitterly remembered by many in Hong Kong for the police storming of the Prince Edward subway station, where they created howling agony among passengers aboard a stopped subway train, beating them with truncheons, and attacking them point-blank with pepper spray and tear gas (video here, if you have the stomach for it).
But back to Jimmy Lai, who along with his sinister record of marching peacefully with hundreds of thousands of other protesters on the afternoon of August 31, apparently has the Hong Kong government concerned about a second transgression. On Friday he was also charged with criminal intimidation during an exchange with a reporter for a pro-Beijing newspaper — three years ago. As described by China’s Global Times, an English-language newspaper published under the auspices of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, the encounter between Lai and the reporter went like this: Lai approached the reporter, “pointed his finger and issued a profanity-laden threat. ‘I will definitely deal with you. I am telling you now that I have already taken a picture of you! [Expletive deleted] your mother!’ ”
The Global Times, replete with its affiliation with China’s ruling Communist Party, includes this account in an article that some might see as exercising its own brand of intimidation. Under the headline, (click at your own peril) “Jimmy Lai is a force of evil, not a ‘hero’ of democracy,” the Global Times denounces Lai as a “a traitor, a criminal and a force of evil who has sowed violence and chaos in arguably one of the freest and most prosperous cities in the world.” Lauding Hong Kong’s rule of law, the Global Times blows right past such niceties to pronounce him guilty: “Needless to say he broke the law by threatening an individual.” The article concludes: “The most important thing is that when Lai is put behind bars, and his friends in the West continue their hysteria, people across China — including those in Hong Kong — will be cheering and relieved that long-overdue justice is finally served.”
Really? Once again, there’s the party line, and then there’s the truth. We can only know what people in mainland China really think when the day comes that China’s Communist Party, and its assorted mouthpieces, get out of the way, and let China’s people speak freely for themselves. As for Hong Kong, millions of Hong Kongers made their profound desire for freedom and democracy quite clear in the massive protests last year. They are now perforce preoccupied with the immediate life-and-death matter of trying to ward off the dangerous coronavirus, now spreading around the globe, which got traction in Wuhan for its massive outbreak during those critical weeks in which China’s communist system tried to smother the truth. Some Hong Kong protests have continued, but the threat posed by a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease has deterred large gatherings — for now.
Clearly, China’s Communist Party would like to shut down Hong Kong’s massive democracy movement for good. Beijing these past two months has reshuffled some of its personnel and arrangements for overseeing Hong Kong, leaving the territory’s widely reviled chief executive, Carrie Lam, in place (for now), but producing a chain of command more conducive to harsh and direct intervention by Xi Jinping. Now, comes the arrest and charging of Jimmy Lai. Looks like everything he’s been warning us about is true.