Jimmy Lai is not like most businessmen. Lai – whose personal wealth is estimated at $1 billion – has been fighting for a long time. Through his roster of publications including Apple Daily, he has championed free speech and, last summer, he led from the forefront of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Naturally, his participation was not without repercussions; following the protests, Lai was arrested in August on suspicion of “collaborating with foreign forces”, a charge Beijing was able to bring against him in the wake of a national security law imposed on Hong Kong following the unrest. Upon his arrest Lai was filmed being marched from his house in handcuffs. Later, he was put through a ‘perp walk’ in the offices of his own newspaper.
Speaking to the BBC, Lai – an important figure in the pro-democracy movement due to his vocal support – told reporters he believed his arrest was “just the beginning” and warned other protestors to be careful. “This scene in a city that has long been a beacon of press freedom in Asia shocked many Hong Kongers — and that was probably the point,” writes Ravi Mattu, who met Lai for the Financial Times. “For Beijing, Lai’s arrest was a signal that no one who challenged its authority was beyond reach.”
Out on bail at the time of the interview with Mattu, Lai, 73, claims the police treated him “quite politely”, even allowing him to take a bath while in custody. Nine other activists were arrested alongside Lai, including two of his sons on what Lai claims are “bogus charges”
Still, Lai remains defiant. “When I was in custody I could not sleep… I was thinking, if I knew that was going to happen to me now, [with] even more hardship [on the way], would I have done the same thing?” he told the BBC. His conclusion? “I would not have [done things] another way – this is my character.”
With Chinese media painting him as a “riot supporter” and claiming his publications have been “instigating hatred, spreading rumours and smearing Hong Kong authorities and the mainland for years”, it’s clear Lai’s fight is far from over.
When those in power back social movements the first response can be a cynical one. Often we ask whether billionaire company owners might just be part of the problem, and what real experience they might have of the struggles dictating lives at street levels. In other words, what do they know of life far away from gated mansions and towering office blocks? In Lai’s case, his comfort was hard-won.
Born in Guangzhou, China in 1948, Lai was born into a rich family that lost everything – including contact with each other – when the Communist Party became the country’s sole ruling power in 1949. Left to take care of his two younger sisters, Lai eventually decided Hong Kong held opportunities for a better life and travelled to the country as a stowaway in 1960, aged 12. From there, he secured a job as a child labourer in a clothing factory, earning a wage equivalent to $8 per month.
Gradually, he worked his way up, attaining the role of factory manager by the age of 21. By 1975 he was doing well enough to invest his yearly bonus in the stock market, using the proceeds to buy a bankrupt clothing factory, Comitex. Lai began producing sweatshirts and selling them to large US retailers like Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney. In 1981, he established Giordano which became an Asia-wide retailer with 2,400 shops in 30 countries.
Following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Lai became vocal about his support of democracy and his criticism of the Chinese government. In the 1990s he stepped away from the garment industry and began publishing Next Magazine, a tabloid which also included serious political and business stories.
Basing his publications on the likes of USA Today and The Sun, Lai’s titles became successful, especially Next Magazine and Apple Daily which he founded with $100 million of his own cash in 1995 as Britain prepared to hand Hong Kong back to China. By the time of the handover in 1997, Apple Daily was selling 400,000 copies daily, making it Hong Kong’s second largest newspaper. Lai saw the paper as a vehicle for free speech. Often it would turn its focus to local tycoons, exposing their controversial personal lives and government relationships. Naturally, Lai gained enemies, particularly in China where all of his publications have always been banned.
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