AMAC Exclusive By David P. Deavel
The shocking assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this weekend is cause for worry. Stalwart in his defense of Japan’s rights as well as those of Taiwan, he had been particularly vocal about the need to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty in leading up to his death, holding a March video meeting with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, in which he called on the world to support the island nation. He also spoke out about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, noting that this should be a sign to the U.S. that they should change their policy of not recognizing the island nation as sovereign. Almost a month ago Abe wrote in a column, “We must not underestimate their [China’s] efforts. Any infringement on Taiwan is an infringement on Japan.”
Abe understood clearly the danger that China’s government poses not only to its own people, but those of its neighbors and indeed the freedom and prosperity of the West in general—a danger expressed and elaborated upon this week by the heads of the FBI and Britain’s MI5 in a joint press conference.
We know China does not value the freedoms of speech, the press, religion, and marketplace because we know what has happened to Hong Kong in the twenty-five years since it was handed back to China by Great Britain. That story is told, with a special focus on a hero every bit as brave and noble as Shinzo Abe, in the Acton Institute’s new documentary The Hong Konger: Jimmy Lai’s Extraordinary Struggle for Freedom.
Jimmy Lai did not grow up in Hong Kong. Much of his early story is told in the documentary through interviews given over the decades. A native of China’s Canton province born in 1948, Jimmy was the son of successful business owners who “became the enemy of the people” after Mao’s take-over and were stripped of their property. His mother was sent to the labor camp, leaving Lai on his own at age five. At age eight, he was working as a porter on the railroad when a gentleman whose bags he had carried turned to him and gave him a chocolate bar. When Lai asked the man where he came from, he was told, “Hong Kong.” “I said Hong Kong must be Heaven because I never tasted anything like that.”
Determined from that point to go to Hong Kong, he stowed away on a fishing junk at age twelve. “At that time,” he recounts, “when you touch base on Hong Kong, you’re legalized.” Lai cried the next morning at the availability of so many different kinds of food for breakfast. He immediately found work at a garment factory and made his way up. Eating and sleeping in the factory where he worked long hours was, says Lai, “a very happy time” when “I knew I had a future.”
Lai had a future because of the way Hong Kong was run by the British as a marvelous experiment in life according to free market principles and limited government not present at all in Mao’s China. From a collection of sleepy fishing villages, the island became a magnificent dynamic and modern city. Lai himself became a salesman, then the factory manager. He invested a year-end bonus in stocks and used his earnings to start a clothing business himself.
Lai’s decision to use his earning this way had an intellectual component to it. Along the way up in his original job, Lai was given Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom by a retired Jewish lawyer. “That book changed my life,” he says with visible emotion. “It turned the light on for me to see it clearly is the result of people’s spontaneous reaction and the exchange of information and pursuing their own goal that has created the best in the world—and that is very enlightening for me.”
Lai adds that risk-taking is one of the other biggest elements of entrepreneurship. Lai knew that risking your fortune and your life are very similar. He continued to expand his clothing business into the retail space. His company Giordano, Lai admits in the film, took its name from the famous Chicago-based pizza chain, one of whose napkins he had in his pocket after an international trip. He guessed, perhaps accurately, that an Italian name might signal a desirable designer better than a Chinese name. His business continued to expand internationally, including into mainland China.
As the film progresses, this merging of Lai’s story with that of Hong Kong becomes more intense. In 1989 with the Tiananmen Square protests, Lai realized he had dreams for all of China and he heard, as it were, the voice of his mother crying out: “And my heart opened up.” He himself became more outspoken about the Chinese government, beginning to worry about the approaching 1997 deadline for when the British lease on Hong Kong’s territory and the possession of the island itself would end and China would again possess Hong Kong.
Thus, in the early 90s he again moved as an entrepreneur, this time into media, founding Next Magazine and then what became Apple Daily, a pro-freedom-and-democracy paper that became the top paper in Hong Kong. His very direct and harsh condemnations of the Chinese government, delivered in columns in his own paper, meant reprisals. The Chinese government threatened to shut down Giordano in China if he were running it. Divesting himself of this company, he focused on his media businesses and his political activism that continued up until his August 2020 arrest by China and the shuttering of Apple Daily.
The film, which has a number of very cogent talking heads including newsman William McGurn, former State Department official Mary Kissel, Apple Daily columnist Simon Lee, Notre Dame political scientist Victoria Tin-bor Hui, and many other voices still in Hong Kong (the last group all filmed in shadow with voices altered to protect them), includes a number of people directly critical of Margaret Thatcher for following through on the return of Hong Kong in 1997, particularly noting her use of the Chinese phrase that accompanied it: “one country, two systems.” To believe in such an arrangement, which was supposed to last for fifty years, was naïve and even “her greatest mistake,” as Mary Kissel says.
No doubt it was naive, but it is not clear that Thatcher had a choice that did not involve a bloody dispute with China over the territory. Many of the Hong Kongers themselves admit that they had hoped that Hong Kong’s system of freedom and ordered liberty would effect change on the mainland. Sadly, it was the other way around.
Lai admits his hopes were different, but he did not hang his head. Instead, he fought back with his own speech and the media he was publishing. As China cracked down further on Hong Kong’s way of life, he led protests along with Hong Kong’s Catholic Cardinal Zen and politician and lawyer Martin Lee. In 2003 Hong Kong’s Article 23 was released, forbidding “any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.” Lai led half a million people in protesting this law, which they knew would endanger freedom of speech and protest.
In 2012, with the rise of China’s President Xi, the Chines government issued Communiqué Number Nine expressing the threat posed by Western values. As Lai observes in the film, the fact that Hong Kong showed that these values could be effective and vibrant in a Chinese context meant that Hong Kong had become an “existential threat.” An extradition law was passed in 2019, and by June 2020 a national security law was passed, allowing anybody who criticizes the Chinese government to be arrested.
Lai was soon arrested and has since been sentenced to more than two years of prison for various charges. The film, which follows him up to the point of waiting on his trial, ends on a pessimistic but hopeful note. Hong Kongers had developed an identity that has survived. Many of them have been forced out, but many of them, speaking anonymously, still love their homes and are trying to survive and keep the fires of freedom, justice, and the rule of law lit.
The example of Jimmy Lai is a powerful one. As many voices in the documentary note, he did not have to get involved in this struggle. He was a billionaire and he divested himself of most of his money—and at this point, the rest has been frozen by the Chinese government—in order to fight for the place that made possible his own rise. Married to a devout Catholic, Jimmy Lai was baptized as an adult and testifies to his faith’s power. “I do believe that if I do the right thing, the strength will come.”
This powerful 73-minute film, has a beautiful and haunting score (albeit one that sometimes overpowers a few of the voices) accompanying its interwoven stories of the magnificent island, its heroic people, and Lai himself. It is not just a heroic tale, but a warning. As Lai observes in the film, “A China that will not respect the rights of its people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.” Nor will it respect the rights of anybody who gets in its way.
The warning goes beyond the immediate threat of the Chinese government, however, for the film forces reflections on the nature and price of liberty. Friend of Lai and Acton co-founder Fr. Robert Sirico says within the first two minutes of the film, “Human freedom is really a tapestry of individual freedoms and they live or die together.” Later on he observes that the West needs to stand by these principles even if it costs us money. Jimmy Lai and the Hong Kongers have certainly done so. They have shown us our absolute need to be grateful for and protect those freedoms as a whole or see them go. The freedoms of conscience and faith, of speech, of being ruled by those who take into account our inalienable rights—they are worth our lives and our fortunes. Defending them is a question of our sacred honor and ultimately our conscience.
David P. Deavel is an Associate Professor at the University of St. Thomas (Texas). A senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative, a winner of the Acton Institute’s Novak Award, and a former Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute. With Jessica Hooten Wilson, he edited Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West (Notre Dame, 2020). Besides his academic publications, Dr. Deavel’s writing has appeared in many journals, including Catholic World Report, City Journal, First Things, Law & Liberty, and The Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Gettr @davidpdeavel.