NEW YORK – When Sebastien Lai accepts an honorary degree from the Catholic University of America today on behalf of his father, he admits it will be bittersweet, saying it’s a moment filled with both gratitude and a wish that his father was not unjustly imprisoned by the Chinese government.
“On a macro-level, it’s great getting all of these awards and we’re incredibly grateful,” Sebastien said. “But on a personal level, I’d rather see him out. He’s my dad.”
Sebastien’s father is Jimmy Lai, a staunch advocate of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, who’s been jailed since December 2020. He was sentenced to 12 months in prison in April 2021 under a 2020 security law that classifies participation in or support of the pro-democracy movement as crimes of subversion and collusion with foreign organizations.
The jailing coincided with the Chinese Communist Party’s intensifying its crackdown on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.
Sebastien told Crux it’s likely that his father stays imprisoned at least until his 2023 fraud trial. However, he noted that it’s expected his father will again be found guilty in the “sham trial” that’s just meant to keep him in prison longer.
“We always thought that this might happen because it’s China,” Sebastien said. “It’s a very brave thing that he’s doing. We always knew that there was a possibility that with what he was doing he would go to jail for it because he wasn’t going to run away from it, but it’s still very tough.”
“It’s still a very painful experience and I personally am optimistic,” he continued. “I think it’s one of those things where it’s just a marathon. You can’t let it get you down too much and you have to roll with the punches as they say.”
Jimmy, 74, has been arrested several times over the years for his pro-democracy advocacy and has never wavered from his commitment to the cause. He also founded the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong in 1995, which shut down last year after a government raid. He was born in mainland China and smuggled into Hong Kong as a child.
Sebastien said because he can’t speak to his father while he’s in jail, they communicate through letters. There are other people who are able to visit Jimmy in prison, he added, so it’s likely that he has gotten the news of the honorary CUA degree.
Sebastien will accept the award on behalf of his father days after Hong Kong authorities arrested retired Hong Kong archbishop Cardinal Joseph Zen and three others on charges of “collusion with foreign forces” for their involvement in a now-closed fund that supported pro-democracy protesters in 2019. The May 11 arrests were made under the same national security law that Lai was arrested under. Zen has since been released on bail.
Jimmy, a Catholic, was baptized by Zen in 1997, according to CUA. Sebastien said Zen’s arrest shows that Hong Kong “has reached a new low.”
“It’s a 90-year-old man. It’s a cardinal. It’s wrong on so many levels,” Sebastien said. “This is a man that has dedicated his life to the church, to the people of Hong Kong, and now, in the twilight of his life, they’re arresting him. It’s sad.”
Mark Simon, a longtime aide of Jimmy and friend of Zen who’s in town for the presentation of the honorary degree, told Crux that Zen’s arrest sends the message that their “true desire is to show that no one can consider themselves free of being brought in.”
“They’ve wanted to do this for a while, and they pulled the trigger because they wanted to show that no one can be out of reach for them, that they’re even going to get the most favored clergyman in Hong Kong and they’re going to get him at 90 years old,” Simon said.
Sebastien’s message to those in the U.S. is a reminder that his father, Zen, and others, are fighting for the same democratic values that “make the U.S. great.”
“It’s a fight for human dignity. It’s a fight for freedom,” Sebastien said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg