The Struggle for Freedom UPDATE: Jimmy Lai’s national security trial postponed again

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Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute

A Hong Kong court has once again postponed Jimmy Lai’s trial on national security charges, likely delaying it to December from September. The imprisoned publisher of the shuttered Apple Daily newspaper was previously scheduled to be tried in December 2022. The latest postponement is a serious blow for the nearly 76-year-old Lai, who has been prison for nearly three years.

This is much more than a case of “justice delayed is justice denied,” as Jimmy Lai’s son Sebastien Lai told me last month when he visited Dallas. The trial’s delay should spur Washington to seek Jimmy Lai’s release through a direct approach to Beijing, rather than just continuing to express rhetorical support.

Sebastien Lai brought the international campaign to free his father to Dallas on Aug. 29, when he spoke at an event cohosted by SMU and the George W. Bush Institute. He also participated in a conversation at the University of Dallas and appeared on the Bush Institute’s The Strategerist podcast. Jimmy Lai’s plight was previously featured on The Struggle for Freedom series.

Show trial

“My father’s trial is a Communist Party show trial, a sham,” Sebastien told me. “It has nothing to do with justice or facts. He’s already served four sentences for peaceful protest and is serving another sentence on trumped up fraud charges over a sublet of office space, of all things. But those cases pale in comparison to the national security charges which carry a possible life sentence.”

Information about the charges is limited. But public court documents show that they hinge, at least in part, on Lai’s published articles in Apple Daily, interviews with international media, and comments posted on Twitter, the social network now known as X.

Lai founded Apple Daily and Next Magazine in the 1990s, in the wake of the Chinese Communist Party’s massacre of democracy protesters on the mainland in June 1989.

The United Kingdom had already reached an agreement with Beijing to return colonial Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, which would place the island under communist control. Lai was convinced that Hong Kong’s businesses, rule of law and civil liberties needed a free press to survive. Apple Daily became the city’s largest newspaper and the only Chinese-language daily outlet to maintain a pro-democracy editorial line as Hong Kong over time came under greater pressure from the Chinese Communist Party.

In 2019, the largest protests in Hong Kong’s history forced the withdrawal of a proposed law that would have authorized extraditions of Hong Kong criminal defendants for trial in the mainland’s thoroughly communist legal system.

The National Security Law’s impact on Hong Kong

Just a year later, the People’s Republic of China retaliated by imposing the National Security Law, bypassing Hong Kong’s only partly democratic legislature.

The National Security Law’s extensive, unchecked powers enable it to criminalize anything it likes. In August 2020, authorities used its provisions to shut down Apple Daily and arrest Lai and the paper’s top editors and executives.

Things have grown dramatically worse since then. According to the U.S. State Department, Hong Kong holds 1,200 political prisoners, and thousands more have been arrested for charges related to democracy protests. The law has also had a chilling effect on Hong Kongers abroad, as authorities monitor demonstrations and social media posts. A student was charged with “inciting secession” upon her return to Hong Kong for posts she made while in Japan. The government has announced “bounties” for several exiled democracy activists and encouraged friends and family to help with their apprehension.

Jonathan Price, a British barrister who belongs to Lai’s international legal team, explains that the National Security Law has degraded Hong Kong’s once revered, independent judicial system. (A separate team of lawyers acts on Jimmy Lai’s behalf in Hong Kong.)

“The National Security Law is deliberately broad and vague and gives the authorities unchecked powers, including the search and seizure powers used to arrest Lai and the paper’s top editors and executives, raid Apple Daily’s offices and force its closure by freezing its bank accounts,” Price says.

The outcome of Lai’s trial, when it does take place, isn’t in doubt.

“National security trials are conducted by specially designated judges, vetted for their loyalty to the Party and its agenda,” Price told me. “There have been no acquittals in the national security trials held so far, and there is no reason to think there will be. Nonetheless, the delay in the trial may signal reluctance to show their absurd and baseless case in the light of day.”

Price points out that the Hong Kong authorities brag about their 100% conviction rate.

To rally support for his father, Sebastien Lai is visiting world capitals and international organizations. In June, he advocated for his father at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, where China’s representative attempted to block his testimony. China has amassed enormous influence at the U.N., and the younger Lai’s opportunity to speak – and the body’s sound rejection of Chinese objections – are a welcome sign that it’s possible to push back against Beijing.

From Geneva to Dallas

“My father embodies everything the Chinese Communist Party fears,” Sebastien Lai told me. “By persecuting him, it’s as if they are putting freedom on trial. He believes in the truth and freedom of the press. He’s a businessman who believes that private property, free access to information, and the rule of law are vital to protect individuals from tyranny. He’s a principled man, a devout Catholic, and devoted to his family. Even more frightening to them, my father is willing to make enormous personal sacrifices to defend his beliefs.”

I asked Sebastien why he came to Texas.

“I know that Americans were extremely important in supporting efforts to free dissidents in the Soviet Union and many other places besides,” he said. “I think if Americans throughout the country hear my father’s story, they will want to help him too.”