In My Father’s Story, Hong Kong’s Rise and Fall

I haven’t seen my father, Jimmy Lai, in three years.

The most recent pictures that have emerged show him surrounded by guards in a Hong Kong prison courtyard during his 50 minutes of daily exercise. He looks thinner, his skin darker. But this will not be the enduring image of him that I carry.

In my memory, Dad is sitting at the breakfast table reading Apple Daily, the rowdy Chinese-language newspaper he founded and published. For 26 years, his paper championed Hong Kongers’ fight for democracy. Then, suddenly, it was all over: Beijing tightened its grip, my father was arrested in 2020, and the paper was shut down the next year.

I fear that I may never see him again. At 75, my father faces trial under charges related to the national security law that Beijing passed in 2020 to crush Hong Kong’s struggle for freedom. His day in court has been repeatedly delayed, and many fear any trial will be a sham. He may spend the rest of his life behind bars.

I believe the charges are designed to discredit him as a leading voice critical of the Chinese Communist Party. But every day he sits in prison is proof of his commitment to the fight for democracy.

My father’s life mirrored Hong Kong’s rise, and his incarceration is emblematic of the city’s downfall.

He landed in Hong Kong at the age of 12 aboard a fishing boat, a young stowaway fleeing the despair of Maoist China, and found work at a glove factory the same day. Hong Kong in the 1960s was unthinkably harsh for a child on his own. He told us stories of rats running across his body as he slept in the workers’ dormitories. He is partly deaf today, a result of his years as a child working the screaming, dangerous machinery in Hong Kong clothing factories. But Dad told us he felt he was in heaven because in Hong Kong he knew he had a future.

The city rose on the backs of refugees who braved the unknown to strive for better lives and my dad was the epitome of a Hong Kong success story, lifting himself from child laborer to factory manager to entrepreneur, starting the popular clothing brand Giordano in 1981.

But the Chinese government crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, led him to make yet another transformation: to newspaper publisher.

He had become an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, which retaliated by putting pressure on Giordano’s mainland operations. He chose to sell the company rather than bow to Beijing. In 1995, a year after I was born, he founded Apple Daily to speak truth to power and keep the Hong Kong public informed. He believed that information allowed for choice and that choice was the basis of freedom.

My earliest memory of the newspaper was visiting its printing presses. Holding my hand, my father led me past the towering, whirring machinery as it churned out the day’s news. I went home that day with my other hand smeared with ink. It was the first time I understood the magnitude of my father’s work and what it took to keep a city of millions informed, to give its people agency over their lives. Apple Daily quickly became a symbol of the city’s free press and other liberties that separated it from the authoritarian mainland.

But this brought great pressure on the newspaper and my family. We were often followed by black cars. Our home was repeatedly firebombed. My parents woke up one evening in 2013 to the crash of a car slamming into our front gate. But my father never flinched.

In 2019 up to two million people took to the streets to protest Beijing’s growing stranglehold on Hong Kong and to demand democracy. They were driven by the same daring spirit and desire for freedom that helped build the city in the first place. It is this defining essence that authorities are now trying to stamp out.

In response, China passed the national security law, and it became a sign of defiance simply to read Apple Daily in public. Shortly after the law went into effect, scores of police officers knocked on our door one day before dawn, raided our home and paraded Dad around his own newsroom in handcuffs. “Don’t be scared,” he told our family before he was led away on the morning of that first arrest. He could have left Hong Kong but chose to stay to show he wouldn’t be cowed — and to send the city’s seven million people the same message.

But Hong Kong is a changed place. The city’s once-vibrant civil society has been dismantled, opposition politicians jailed, independent newsrooms muzzled.

Hong Kong authorities have already sentenced my father to more than five years in prison in one case. He now faces trial on charges such as sedition and endangering national security. But his only crime has been to stand up for democracy. The city’s government must release him to lend any credence to its claim that it still respects the rule of law and to salvage the city’s status as an international business and financial center.

There is another enduring image that I have of my father — who is also a British citizen and Catholic — strolling through the expanse of Hyde Park in London, singing “Ave Maria” under the English sun. It is the picture of a man who has steadfastly pursued freedom and is at peace with bearing the responsibility he feels toward himself and his home. Here, out in the open air, is where my father belongs.

In imprisoning a man who embodies Hong Kong’s rise, authorities in the city are showing the world they no longer tolerate the very things that once made it so great: free speech, the rule of law and a love for liberty.

Sebastien Lai (@SupportJimmyLai) is leading an international campaign to seek freedom for his father, Jimmy Lai.

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