NEW YORK — In the words of Jimmy Lai, “freedom has a price.” That’s why the Chinese media mogul and activist is leaning on his Catholic faith for support as he faces potential prison time and continues the fight for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.
Speaking at the Acton Institute’s 30th anniversary virtual celebration Wednesday, Lai, who runs the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper from the Chinese city, spoke about the opportunities Hong Kong gave him growing up as a reason he continues to fight for freedom.
“I came here with one dollar and the freedom here has given me the opportunity to build up myself. And the value that is underlying this freedom is so precious and that’s exactly what we are fighting for in Hong Kong now,” he said.
Lai was presented the Acton Institute’s 2020 Faith and Freedom Award for his work by the organization’s president Father Robert A. Sirico and chief executive officer Kris Alan Mauren. The Acton Institute is a Michigan-based think tank promoting free market policies undergirded by religious principles.
Sirico offered Lai a message of solidarity in recognizing him for the award. Meanwhile, highlighting what it shows that he now faces a possible prison sentence.
“When you see a man like this, who is looking at a potential jail sentence in a Chinese cell it prompts in us a certain inspiration but also an awareness that socialism is resilient,” Sirico said. “The collectivism idea, the idea of dominating other people, that politics is the solution to our problems, power to corrupt. These are the challenges we’re facing this day in age.”
Lai was arrested with nine others in August for suspicion of colluding with foreign forces under a new Chinese security law. Police also raided the Apple Daily headquarters.
News reports at the time said he was held for forty hours and shown interviews he did with foreign media outlets as evidence of collusion. He was eventually released on bail.
Lai founded the newspaper in 1995 after the Chinese government forced him to sell his successful clothing business because he put resources towards activism. He said in a 2006 interview that he needed to create the newspaper because it would give him a “satisfaction of doing something meaningful.”
“In the media business you deliver information, then you deliver choice and choice is freedom,” Lai said in the interview. “I was thrilled that I can be part of the institution that is delivering freedom.”
Activism, however, wasn’t always a part of his plans. It was after the events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that he decided to raise his voice. In the 2006 interview Lai also lamented the fact that the Tiananmen Square protests weren’t the turning point towards freedom that he thought they would be. Nonetheless, he said “we have to persist and I’m positive that the day is getting closer and closer.”
It’s been fourteen years since that interview. Over that period of time the Chinese government has instituted new laws in an attempt to take more control of Hong Kong, a former British colony that has more freedoms than the rest of China.
Lai closed out his comments Wednesday by saying God will continue to guide him through the ongoing fight for freedom and democracy in the city.
“It is always in my mind as a Catholic that God is always my center. And I am always a sinner and I know my life is not about myself,” Lai said. “If I can accomplish this I know that I’m leaving in the grace of God. I know that I will be a better person for whatever suffer I have to take up.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg