Jimmy Lai is considered a champion of free press by some and a national security threat by others. But a May 2020 opinion editorial in the New York Times suggests that he may also be a psychic. “I am the chairman and majority owner of Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s largest newspapers, and since the city’s return to China in 1997,” wrote Lai, “I have feared that one day the Chinese Communist Party would grow tired not only of Hong Kong’s free press but also of its free people. That day has come.” The words were prophetic as we look back through the lens of where we are now, three months later. On August 10, 2020, Jimmy Lai was arrested after a new national security law was imposed by China.
The law was put into effect on June 30 of this year. Intentionally broad in nature, it criminalizes any act of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces. An article from the BBC explains, “It gives Beijing powers to shape life in Hong Kong it has never had before. Critics say it effectively curtails protest and freedom of speech – China has said it will return stability.” The possibility of a national security law has been looming over Hong Kong for some time, but has never come to fruition due to unpopularity.
This is not the first of Jimmy Lai’s arrests. He has been penalized on multiple occasions for advocating on behalf of democracy and civil rights in Hong Kong. However, this arrest does present the most serious consequences. Violation of the national security law is punishable by life in prison and extradition to mainland China. Some are showing support for Lai and his company Next Media by purchasing a copy of Apple Daily, while others opt to provide alternative financial support for the company. Kelly Ho from Hong Kong Free Press shares: “Next Digital saw its stock price rocket by over 300 per cent on Monday after its owner, pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, was arrested under the national security law.” The controversy has triggered an international response from political leaders and free press advocates.
What does this mean for free press in Hong Kong? Lai’s New York Times opinion editorial suggests that he knew the answer to that question long before his most recent arrest. He theorized that once the new national security law was enacted, “we will be able to say only what the Chinese government tolerates. Every sentence, every word will carry the risk of potential punishment on the mainland.”
Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status has allowed them to enjoy many of the privileges of free press, but the loss of this status threatens a new reality where free press is a foreign ideal rather than an attainable right. “Beijing’s national security law has had an enormous chilling effect on Hong Kong civil society,” NPR’s Emily Feng shares, “particularly in schools and universities as people self-censor out of fear of prosecution.” The chilling effect and self-censorship are two significant deterrents to the possibility of a free press. Jimmy Lai was undoubtedly aware of that as he authored the prophetic opinion editorial that predicted his arrest. Though Lai’s fate is unclear, the public discourse it has sparked around the value of a free press is certain.