The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Hong Kong’s Jimmy Lai goes on trial soon. So does freedom of speech.

Jimmy Lai leaves a Hong Kong courthouse on Feb. 9, 2021. (Kin Cheung/AP)

“Freedom of speech is a dangerous job,” the Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai wrote by hand in a letter from prison last year. He is founder of Apple Daily, a scrappy tabloid newspaper that became a voice for democracy in Hong Kong. Mr. Lai is fighting specious charges by the authorities under the restrictive National Security Law imposed by Beijing. His trial is to begin this week — and the right to freedom of expression and association will be in the dock with him.

Mr. Lai wrote in his handwritten letter that it is “a journalist’s responsibility to uphold justice” and “it is precisely this that we need to love and cherish. … The era is falling apart before us, and it is time for us to stand tall.”

That era, including the decades in which Mr. Lai rose from poverty to wealth, was one in which Hong Kong stood as a beacon of free speech, free enterprise and rule of law. China pledged to uphold such a system when it took control of Hong Kong in 1997 from Britain. But in recent years, it has betrayed the promise and absorbed the territory into the mainland’s authoritarian system, cracking down on public protests, arresting dissidents and journalists, and shutting down the free press — including Apple Daily, which published its last print edition on June 24, 2021, after the government seized its assets and forced a closure.

As a poor 12-year-old in 1960, Mr. Lai had fled the mainland to Hong Kong and worked as a child laborer in sweatshops while learning English. He eventually bought a bankrupt garment factory and then built up a clothing retail business with outlets throughout Asia. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, he sold the business to become a media tycoon, founding the newspaper in 1995. Mr. Lai became a vocal critic of the Beijing leadership, and Apple Daily was an outspoken voice for democracy and civil society.

Mr. Lai was arrested several times in recent years in an effort by the government to humiliate and intimidate him. But the upcoming trial is based on the most serious charges he has yet faced. A conviction could mean life in prison. In June 2021, he was accused of colluding with foreign powers — a ludicrous charge. Police claimed some 30 articles in Apple Daily played a “crucial part” in a conspiracy with governments abroad to impose sanctions on China and Hong Kong — sanctions that were in response to China’s suppression of democracy in Hong Kong. In an ominous turn, six of Apple Daily’s top executives recently pleaded guilty to the collusion charges and some might testify against Mr. Lai. The trial is scheduled to begin on Thursday, but may be delayed by legal wrangling over whether Mr. Lai can be represented by a British lawyer.

Mr. Lai and Apple Daily are not criminals. The attempt to extinguish this bright light of journalism and democracy illustrates once again the long shadow of intolerance and oppression that China’s Communist Party is casting over Hong Kong.

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