Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily (by Benedict Rogers)

Editor’s Note: The second World Hong Kong Forum, currently taking place in Toronto, has invited six former Apple Daily columnists to write and share their opinions on Jimmy Lai. These articles have been published in the event program, and The Chaser News has been granted permission by the organizers to republish the full texts.

If you want to understand Jimmy Lai, what made him, what he believes and what he has achieved, and the ethos and values that underpinned the Apple Daily newspaper which he founded, look no further than the remarkable documentary titled The Hong Konger. Now freely available online at https://www.freejimmylai.com, the film – produced by the Acton Institute – has already been viewed more than a million times and deserves to be watched by millions more people around the world.

In over thirty years of human rights advocacy, I have had the privilege of getting to know some truly courageous, inspirational freedom fighters, dissidents and political prisoners. In Myanmar, East Timor, Pakistan and The Maldives, some of the world’s greatest pro-democracy campaigners have become my friends. From North Korea, Tibet, the Uyghurs of East Turkestan and China, some of the world’s most remarkable exiled refugee activists have become my dear colleagues. At least two of my close friends have been assassinated, and many have been jailed. And in over a quarter of a century of journalism, I have written for some great publications – The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Telegraph, The Times, The Spectator, Foreign Policy and more.

Yet in all these years, no one has impressed me more than Jimmy Lai, and there has been no publication for which it has been a greater honour to contribute to than Apple Daily.

Jimmy’s rags-to-riches story is Hong Kong’s story. Arriving in Hong Kong as a stowaway on a boat from China aged 12 in 1959, he worked his way up from child labourer to factory manager, entrepreneur, media mogul and billionaire. He founded the hugely successful clothing retailer Giordano, the publishing group Next Media and the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily.

But there are two words that are pivotal to understanding Jimmy: freedom and faith.

His central role in Hong Kong’s fight for freedom is clear – and it is for that cause that he, aged 75, now faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in jail. But it is his profound Catholic faith that guided him throughout the struggle for freedom – and that sustains him in the darkness of his prison cell.

When I first met Jimmy, it was obvious from the start that we were brought together by those two shared values: faith and freedom. I was supposed to meet him for dinner in October 2017 in Hong Kong, but was denied entry on the orders of Beijing, and so we met in London two months later. We met several times after that, in London, New York and Taipei, and kept in contact until he went to jail. I pray for him daily.

In the summer of 2020, soon after Beijing imposed the draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong, Jimmy asked me if I would contribute a weekly column to the English language online version of Apple Daily. At a time when most people in Hong Kong were understandably cutting off contact with me or exercising great caution, he showed typical audacity by pushing the envelope at a time of maximum danger. It was that audacity that made him who he is.

Once I had ascertained that he really wanted me to be a contributor, I accepted his invitation eagerly. It was one of the greatest honours of my life. Every single Wednesday evening for a year, I would sit down, without fail, in London to write my column and send it off to the Apple Daily newsroom, and every Friday morning without fail I would wake up to find it published online in Hong Kong. The editors told me I could write about any topic I wanted, as long as it was relevant to Hong Kong, China or Asia. They gave me no word count, and they never edited or censored me. It is the only newspaper in the world which has ever given me such complete free reign. That was the spirit of Apple Daily.

When the Hong Kong police first raided the newsroom in August 2020, I immediately contacted my editor to check if they were safe, and to offer to stop writing for them if necessary. The response came back rapidly: “Of course we want you to keep writing for us. It’s business as usual.” That was the spirit of Apple Daily – and it reflected the spirit of its founder, Jimmy Lai.

On Wednesday, 16 June 2021 I wrote my last ever article for Apple Daily – although I did not know it at the time. I sent it and went to sleep. I awoke in the morning to the news of another police raid – and a week later, the 26 year-old newspaper was forced to close. The Apple Daily did not die – it was killed by the regime in Beijing and its quislings in Hong Kong. But it is the responsibility of all of us who live in freedom to ensure that its spirit and values live on.

As the World Hong Kong Forum gets underway, let us be inspired by Jimmy Lai and the Apple Daily, let us tell the world about them, and let us ensure that Jimmy – and all political prisoners in Hong Kong – are never, ever forgotten. More than that, let us redouble our efforts to seek their release and to work for the day when Hong Kong – and all of China – is free. Free to start more newspapers like Apple Daily. Free to practice any faith. Free to pursue dreams, unleash potential, build a better future. Free to be like Jimmy Lai. #FreeJimmyLai.


Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, and author of “The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny”.


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