Media tycoon Jimmy Lai is escorted into a Hong Kong Correctional Services van outside the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong on February 1, 2021, after being ordered to remain in jail while judges consider his fresh bail application, the first major legal challenge to a sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on the city last year. Photo: AFP / STR

“I have a soul,” said my lunch partner at The Hong Kong Club on February 20, 2019. 

Jimmy Lai and I had been talking about a recent CNN newscast that had shown his Hong Kong home under surveillance not by police but by unidentified “watchers” who also followed him to his office at Apple Daily, the independent newspaper and broadcasting corporation of which he was the founder and chief executive. 

Although Hong Kong was then still being liberally governed under the “one country, two systems” deal established in 1997 when the city was transferred from the UK’s to China’s control, the Communist Party of China (CPC) “watchers” were an early indication of how the city might lose its relative political openness and freedom of speech. 

I had asked Lai what was driving him down a path that might lead to increasing conflict with CPC boss Xi Jinping, to loss of his wealth and very possibly to jail and/or execution. He explained that all the money in the world was useless if it came at the cost of the truth.

“What use is my money, if I can’t openly say what I think?” he asked.

He went on to explain that “the Communists think they can buy and/or intimidate everyone off, create their own reality, and write their own history. Effectively, they assume the role of God. They are kind of a religion or an anti-religion.

“They have initiation into the party as a kind of baptism. They have self-criticism as a kind of confession of sins, re-education as a kind of penance, and elevation to hero of the party as a kind of sainthood. And, of course, at least Mao [Zedong] has a kind of everlasting life as a photo smiling down on Tiananmen Square and as an embalmed corpse in a casket in the square.” 

“But,” said Lai, “the party and its members do not have souls. In fact, they are dead men walking, because the truth is not in them.”

This discussion all came flooding back to me as I read of the collapse and closing of Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s last independent newspaper guided by the command of free speech.

It collapsed not just because of Lai’s arrest and imprisonment. Indeed, in the wake of his jailing the paper’s popularity had soared. From a daily run of about 100,000 copies, it began printing 500,000 copies, and even that was not enough to satisfy the demand for Apple’s truth. 

Of course, that demand constituted a huge, roaring rebuke of Beijing’s welshing on the original agreement with the UK to maintain one country, two systems for 50 years, until 2047. It represented a huge demand for the right to hear the truth and to have a soul.

No way could the CPC allow that challenge to stand. Apple’s cash and other assets were seized and frozen by the party-controlled government, while several of its editors were charged with various obscure crimes.

Jimmy Lai’s life is both an inspiration and a potential rebuke. As a 12-year-old boy in Guangzhou, he stowed away on a boat bound for Hong Kong. There he landed a job in a textile mill in 1947 at a wage of HK$12 a month (about US$2). He spoke only Cantonese and had little education.

But he had energy, ambition, and guts. He became fluent in English, read widely, and by working hard became factory manager in 1975. Then, using his year-end bonus, he bought a bankrupt garment factory and founded Giordano, his own textile empire that eventually employed 8,000 people in 2,400 shops in 30 countries and regions.

In the wake of the 1989 CPC massacre of students protesting for democracy in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Lai became an ardent advocate of democracy and left the garment business to found a publishing empire including Next magazine and Apple.

These publications flourished in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but were banned in mainland China after 1994 when Lai wrote in a newspaper column that Chinese premier Li Peng should “drop dead.” 

Lai explained to me that it was through reading Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 book The Road to Serfdom that he became inspired to fight for freedom. And fight he did.

He was arrested in Hong Kong in 2014 for participating in the Umbrella Movement of students who demanded further democratization of the city’s government. He became the target of hostile attacks. Machetes and threatening messages were left in his driveway.

He was rammed by a car and his home was subjected to firebombing not once, but several times. Finally in December 2020 he was arrested and jailed, and he has been rearrested even while in jail on further charges. 

Now, with the effective governmental seizure of Apple, and his own imprisonment, it may appear that Jimmy Lai’s fate is sealed. But he views all this as a badge of honor, insisting that “no one can say we didn’t fight,” and that “prison life is the pinnacle of my life. I am completely at peace.” For Jimmy Lai, the soul is priceless.

This poses a key question and challenge to free-world leaders and businessmen around the globe. Unlike Jimmy Lai’s Apple, the Apple of iPhone and Mac deletes applications from its App Store in Hong Kong at the suggestion of Beijing because protesters for democracy are using them to avoid arrest by the thought police.

The leaders of the Group of Seven major democracies are careful to word their communiqué on relations with Beijing so as not to endanger German exports of Mercedes-Benz autos or of French wine to China.

While Jeff Bezos plans his jaunt into space, his Amazon is spending big bucks to lobby the US Congress not to compel labeling that identifies the country of origin of products sold by Amazon (mostly in China).

Such universities as Harvard, Stanford and Oxford often in the past invited the Dalai Lama to speak at commencement ceremonies, but not so much since it has become clear that Beijing might prevent full-tuition-paying Chinese students from attending institutions that invite the Dalai Lama. 

What is and should be the price of these souls?

Clyde Prestowitz

Clyde Prestowitz is founder and president of the Economic Strategy Institute. For more than 50 years, Prestowitz has studied, lived and worked in Asia, Europe and Latin America as well as in the United States and has become noted as a leading writer and strategist on globalization and competitiveness. His newest book is The World Turned Upside Down: China, America and the Struggle for Global Leadership (Yale University Press) published in January 2021.