It’s unlikely that President Joe Biden brought up the name Jimmy Lai in his recent conversation with China’s communist dictator, Xi Jinping. At least the records don’t show it. But Lai’s impending trial in Hong Kong represents a classic showdown between a tireless defender of freedom and a brutal regime.
One of Biden's predecessors, former President John Quincy Adams, is often quoted by those who want America to be less active overseas: “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Yet in that same July 4, 1821, speech—in the immediately preceding lines, in fact—Adams added that America would always side with freedom against tyranny. “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be,” he said.
Lai richly deserves America’s benedictions and prayers, and Biden makes a mistake in not using his bully pulpit to press for his release. Lai fought for freedom vigorously for decades in Hong Kong until Xi's truculence burned it down by throwing him into prison in 2020.
The sham trial that is to follow will only demonstrate to the rest of the world the reality of Chinese communism and that Hong Kong’s position as a place in China that respected natural rights is no longer. But strong international protest and shaming may convince China to release Lai, who is 74, and let him go abroad.
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Lai has been a friend of mine for decades, since I was posted to the then-British colony by the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal in 1995. I was able to see how he used his position as Hong Kong’s last independent publisher to keep the flame of freedom alive.
Hong Kong was a British colony for 150 years before the colonial power handed it to China in 1997. One of the few mistakes former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made was to agree to this handover in 1984. But in her defense, the then-supremo of Communist China, Deng Xiaoping, did promise in an international treaty that for half a century after ‘97, Hong Kong would retain its political and economic systems. It was called “one country, two systems.”
The idea was that, though belonging to China, Hong Kongers would continue to enjoy the freedoms they had enjoyed under the Brits: freedom to trade, of expression, property, association, etc. This respect of natural rights had made the city one of the richest places on Earth.
Xi has torn all that down, just as he has torn down, in the rest of China, all the other norms that came into being over time after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Under his ruthless bid to become the new Mao, Xi’s Chinese Communist Party has made the country America’s new main adversary on the world stage.
The straw that broke Hong Kong’s back was a national security law that cracks down on “sedition” and “collusion” with foreign forces and has been an instrument for Xi to take control of the territory. Because of this law, Lai faces three charges of collusion with a foreign country and one sedition charge. His trial begins on Dec. 1.
Lai poses no threat to China’s national security, only to the CCP’s lust for absolute power. Both Lai and Xi are obsessed with liberty—Jimmy with expanding it and Xi with crushing it. After all other publications bent a knee to Beijing following the ‘97 handover, Jimmy’s Apple Daily empire continued to advocate continuing Hong Kong’s free way of life. No tyrant can live alongside the free flow of information.
For years, Lai opened his house in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Peninsula to other lovers of liberty. We congregated there for dinners that included other journalists and an array of other personalities, including Hong Kong politicians, men and women of the church (like many other of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy figures, including the longtime opposition leader Martin Lee and the top civil servant under the Brits, Anson Chan, Lai is a Catholic), and the occasional visitor from overseas.
It was at his side that I met economist Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal during that visit, Friedman prophetically said of the Chinese leadership, “They understand why a free press is important. And that's one of the reasons they don't want it. You cannot have a free press and have a centralized, authoritarian government.”
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It was also with Lai that I met heroes of the Tiananmen Square movement and other fighters for political and religious freedom inside mainland China. I went to Lai’s baptism into the Catholic Church at Hong Kong Cathedral. Several years later, he went to my daughter’s.
On the night of the handover of the city to China—June 30, 1997—I and others had dinner at Lai’s house with his lovely wife, Theresa, and then took the Hong Kong metro to downtown Hong Kong. We then climbed up to the balcony of the Legislative Council, where Martin Lee, now 84, the founder of the Hong Kong democracy movement, addressed a large crowd below. Lee, also a friend, may also face charges.
Lai’s basic belief is that God made man for freedom. In words that I’ll never forget, he once put it this way: “Freedom is like oxygen. We take both for granted until someone takes them away. Then regaining them becomes the only thing we think about.”
It is for thinking like this that China has now extinguished Lai’s freedom and why the United States should do everything in its power to get it back.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times