What first drove Jimmy Lai—now an internationally-known media tycoon and a high-profile pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong—to seek answers in the Christian faith? Probably not what you might expect. In an interview with the Napa Institute last week, Lai’s answer to that question began with the story of the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997.
Before the handover, Hong Kong’s citizens enjoyed fundamental freedoms and ample opportunity under British rule that citizens of mainland China did not. When Lai was just 12 years old, he fled from mainland China to Hong Kong as a stowaway to seek the opportunities provided by the city’s freedoms. Starting as a child laborer, he worked his way up the corporate ladder and became a successful businessman in his own right.
By 1997, Lai had become a prominent critic of the Chinese Communist Party. He knew that with the Chinese government encroaching on Hong Kong, “if they had to arrest ten people, I would be one of them.” Lai said, “This fear prompted me to look for God.”
At midnight on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong formally came under the Chinese Communist Party’s jurisdiction. The following day, Lai joined the Catholic Church under the leadership of then-Bishop Joseph Zenz.
Now that the Chinese government is seeking even greater control over Hong Kong, Lai is once again facing the threat of imprisonment, due to his position as a pro-democracy advocate.
When China imposed a new national security law for Hong Kong in June, the Chinese government expanded its power to crack down on anyone it deems a national security threat. But in China, a threat to “national security” often means a threat to the Party. In August of this year, Lai was arrested under the new law for “collusion with foreign powers” due to his pro-democracy advocacy. His sons were also arrested at their homes. The same day, over 200 police officers raided Lai’s pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily.
Though Lai is currently released on bail, he could receive a minimum of 10 years in jail if he is convicted on that charge. But these developments were not altogether surprising for Lai. In an op-ed published in late May, he wrote, “I have feared that one day the Chinese Communist Party would grow tired not only of Hong Kong’s free press but also of its free people. That day has come.”
Lai has British citizenship, and he can easily escape the tense environment in Hong Kong and the new risks that come with living there. Yet, his conviction requires him to stay. He told the Napa Institute, “If I go away, I not only give up my destiny, I give up God, I give up my religion, I give up what I believe in.”
Religious freedom is a foremost consideration as Lai continues to advocate for democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong. The Chinese government’s war on faith is ramping up, and Lai suggests this crackdown is part of the Party’s goal to further consolidate and secure its own power. He notes, “Once you don’t have a religion, you can easily be dictated by their order.”
Though the risks are higher than ever for this 71-year-old self-made entrepreneur, he continues to advocate for freedom and finds purpose in doing so. As he faces an uncertain future, his reflections are significant and ought to inspire us all: “When you lift yourself above your own self-interest, you find the meaning of life. You find you’re doing the right thing, which is so wonderful. It changed my life into a different thing.”