The 71-year-old boss of Next Digital Ltd. that publishes the outspoken Apple Daily newspaper told Kyodo News in his Kowloon mansion that the newspaper has relinquished the initiating role in demonstrations since the sweeping national security law was imposed in Hong Kong in June, while vowing not to self-censor.
“We will not print posters to urge the people to demonstrate. We will not do the initiative of driving people out (to protest),” Lai said. “The change is (due to) national security law. If we do that, (the authorities) can come in and clamp down at any time.”
“We will just report what we have to report, like an independent media. We are not going to be censoring ourselves, we would rather close it (down) if we had to censor ourselves,” he said.
Betting on a liberalizing China following the pro-democracy student movement in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, Lai started building his media empire in Hong Kong, alongside his clothing and fashion brand Giordano.
An open letter chastising then Chinese Premier Li Peng apparently angered Beijing and Lai was forced to sell off his stake in the apparel company.
“I’ve been wrong. China did open up, (however, it) became more and more dictatorial and authoritarian. But I must say that I have chosen the right career for myself. I really enjoy this career,” he said.
The trading volume and share price of Next Digital, as well as sales of copies of Apple Daily, skyrocketed the day following Lai’s arrest last month, in what he called just another form of support and protest by the people.
On Aug. 10, hundreds of police officers raided Apple Daily’s newsroom, hours after arresting Lai for alleged collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security. His two sons and associates, along with democracy activists Agnes Chow and Andy Li, were also arrested that day.
“Definitely, it’s a politicization that (the authorities) want to intimidate the Hong Kong people and especially people in the movement,” Lai said. He also faces charges of inciting people to join protests and an appeal by the Justice Department on a not-guilty verdict in an intimidation trial.
The enactment and imposition of the national security law, which targets acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces and carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, are detrimental to Hong Kong’s rule of law, Lai said.
“With the national security law, which supersedes our Basic Law and bypasses the Legislative Council, (it) means the rule of law in Hong Kong is destroyed. People who do business here will not have legal protection…especially in the financial business that you have to transact billions and billions in seconds, you need mutual trust to facilitate the transactions.”
“Without the rule of law, there won’t be mutual trust and there won’t be the possibility of a financial center working efficiently. So Hong Kong, without the financial center, without trade center, is dead,” he said.
The security law also spells a death knell for freedom of speech, Lai said, as people have to bear in mind legal consequences for what they do or say.
At least 27 people have been arrested for allegedly breaching the national security law since it took effect, some of them only for chanting or brandishing slogans that the authorities deemed subversive.
“The only thing the (Chinese Communist Party) knows is suppression and control. Like last year, the extradition law, so many people went on the street, but the government never looked at the cause of this resistance.”
“(When suppression) cannot calm it down, China uses national security law, now they are successful. They calmed it down, they intimidated Hong Kong people, but at the same time, they killed Hong Kong,” Lai said.
The monthslong anti-government demonstrations kicked off last year over the now-withdrawn China extradition bill and the subsequent security law have drawn criticisms from some Western countries against China’s perceived encroachment of rights and freedoms promised to the former British colony when it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and China’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic has added to its woes.
“The pandemic actually has done great harm to China by waking up people in the free world to China’s behaviors. I mean the bullying behavior, the bad…behavior. It is people’s resentment which will make the outside world’s politics so disastrous for China,” Lai said.
“We share the same value with the people in the free world, the people in Japan. What Japan can do, and the world can do to help us, is to keep an eye on Hong Kong and voice out things that bother you.”
“The Japanese government has been very polite and conservative, but even now they are stepping forward to accuse China unlike before. Only by aligning itself with the (United States), and eventually the Western bloc policy, (will Japan) have the power to leverage against China,” he said.
With lawsuits pending and Beijing’s relentless bashing, Lai said he has no plan to leave Hong Kong.
“How can I leave this place? I have been making trouble here, and I can’t make trouble and leave,” Lai said. “I have no regret. I have the responsibility as somebody who has always been in the resistant movement to stay until the end. Because I am not fighting for myself, I am fighting for Hong Kong.”
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