by Jerome Taylor
A rags-to-riches millionaire, media tycoon Jimmy Lai is a self-styled “troublemaker” who has long been a thorn in Beijing’s side thanks to his caustic tabloids and unapologetic support for democracy.
The 73-year-old was convicted over his activism for the first time on Friday, handed a 12-month prison sentence for helping to lead one of Hong Kong’s biggest protests.
But in many ways, the verdict does little to change his daily life.
He has been held in pre-trial detention since early January under a sweeping new national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong last year.
Lai had long predicted he would be a prime target for authorities as they cracked down on dissent following the huge and often violent democracy protests that swept the financial hub in 2019.
“I’m prepared for prison,” Lai told AFP last year in an interview two weeks before the security law was enacted.
“If it comes, I will have the opportunity to read books I haven’t read. The only thing I can do is to be positive.”
Few Hong Kongers generate the level of vitriol from Beijing that Lai does.
For many residents of the semi-autonomous city, he is an unlikely hero — a pugnacious, self-made tabloid owner and the only tycoon willing to criticise Beijing.
But in China’s state media he is a “traitor”, the biggest “black hand” behind last year’s huge pro-democracy protests and the head of a new “Gang of Four” conspiring with foreign nations to undermine the motherland.
Like many of Hong Kong’s tycoons, Lai rose from poverty.
He was born in mainland China’s Guangdong province into a wealthy family but they lost it all when the communists took power in 1949.
Smuggled into Hong Kong aged 12, Lai toiled in sweatshops, taught himself English and eventually founded the hugely successful Giordano clothing empire.
But his path diverged from his contemporaries in 1989 when China sent tanks to crush pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
He founded his first publication shortly after and penned columns that regularly criticised senior Chinese leaders.
Authorities began closing his mainland clothing stores, so Lai sold up and ploughed the money into a tabloid empire.
Prosecutors have brought multiple cases against Lai over the years and last summer he was acquitted of intimidating a journalist from a rival newspaper.
But his embrace of 2019’s democracy movement — and personal participation in some of the rallies — have now led to conviction.
At Friday’s court hearing, he was sentenced to 12 months for helping lead a peaceful protest on August 18, 2019. Four other veteran campaigners were also jailed for terms between eight and 18 months.
But it is the national security charge that threatens to keep Lai behind bars for the rest of his life.
Lai is accused of “colluding with foreign forces” because he allegedly advocated for sanctions against China.
National security offences carry up to life in jail and most of those who are charged, like Lai, are denied bail.
Before his sentence was handed down Friday, prosecutors added an additional count of conspiring to collude with foreign forces, as well as conspiring to obstruct the course of justice.
Chinese state media has already declared Lai guilty in articles and editorials since his arrest last summer.
During AFP‘s interview last year, Lai said he had no plans to leave Hong Kong despite his wealth and the risks he faced.
“I came here with nothing, the freedom of this place has given me everything. Maybe it’s time I paid back for that freedom by fighting for it,” he said.
Lai’s two primary publications — the Apple Daily newspaper and the digital-only Next magazine — openly back democracy protests in a city where competitors either support Beijing or tread a far more cautious line.
The two publications have been largely devoid of advertisements for years as brands steer clear of incurring Beijing’s wrath. Lai has plugged the losses with his own cash.
But they are popular, offering a heady mix of celebrity news, sex scandals and genuine investigations such as a recent series looking at how the houses of some senior police officers violated building codes.
Earlier this week, Apple Daily published a handwritten note it said Lai had sent staff from prison.
“Hong Kong’s situation is increasingly chilling, but precisely because of that, we need to love and cherish ourselves more,” he wrote.
“The era is falling apart before us and it is time for us to stand tall and keep our heads high.”