Hong Kong’s 'rebellious' tycoon Jimmy Lai says his pro-democratic paper will push on despite the odds

The 71-year-old is accused of collusion with foreign forces.

September 26, 2020, 12:02 AM

Jimmy Lai’s future is uncertain. The media tycoon is one of Hong Kong's most prominent pro-democracy activists and one of Beijing’s most ardent critics. This, according to Lai, makes him “a logical target” of the Chinese government.

Lai is out on bail after he was arrested under the controversial new security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong this summer to clamp down on the pro-democracy movement after a year of protests.

Speaking with ABC News at his home in Hong Kong, the 71-year-old former textile magnate explained why he wanted to try his hand at publishing after the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing.

“I never thought I was doing something for society or having a mission or whatever. It was just some rebelliousness in my nature that prompted me,” he said.

But the controversy surrounding Lai reached new heights on Aug. 10 when he was arrested at his home for collusion with foreign forces. Around 200 police officers were then sent to raid the offices of Apple Daily, which Lai started 25 years ago.

Several of Lai’s executives were also arrested.

The day after the arrests and newsroom raid, supportive Hong Kong residents bought copies of the paper, in what Lai called “a form of resistance” at a time when protests have been curbed by the pandemic.

When Lai was released on bail 36 hours after he was detained, he received a hero's welcome back in the newsroom.

“Apple Daily is considered the most important independent and pro-democracy paper in Hong Kong and Jimmy Lai himself has become a kind of icon,” said Ma Ngok, an associate professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It’s controversial because a lot of people don't like its sensationalism and then some people will see its reports as bias. But a lot of people would think that Apple Daily still is a very important voice, if we believe that Hong Kong enjoys a wide diversity of political opinions.”

Ma said the tabloid has also played an “advocacy role” in calling on people to join democracy movements, including during last year’s months-long protests that at times turned violent.

Journalists at Apple Daily, who spoke to ABC News over several weeks, said their bylines have been removed from stories for their protection.

They only wanted to be identified by their first names in interviews.

“I had thousands of nightmares in 2019,” said photojournalist KT, looking back at the last year of political unrest and street protests.

“Many colleagues had mental issues and depression ... even in 2020, when I see police officers patrolling the streets, it will also make me nervous," KT added.

Some journalists at Apple Daily fear that they, too, will become targets of the national security law but vow to carry on with their work as usual.

“It's as if the more pressure that we face, we think it is more important for us to do our job,” said reporter Tweety, who livestreamed the 2019 protests as the events unfolded.

Before the national security law was imposed on June 30, Apple Daily’s investigative team made sure their sources were protected.

“We destroyed all the documents which contain sensitive information. We digitalized the documents and saved them into a private server overseas,” said Antony, who files hard-hitting investigative reports for the paper.

But Apple Daily’s struggles go beyond the newsroom.

PHOTO: Jimmy Lai pushes through a media pack to get to a waiting vehicle after being released on bail from the Mong Kok police station in the early morning in Hong Kong, Aug. 12, 2020.
Jimmy Lai pushes through a media pack to get to a waiting vehicle after being released on bail from the Mong Kok police station in the early morning in Hong Kong, Aug. 12, 2020.
Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

In Hong Kong’s business community, Lai is a rare democratic voice.

“We don't have many advertisements from commercial sectors because they have a close relationship with the authorities and the Chinese government, so they don't like us," Apple Daily Editor-in-Chief Alvin Wong said. "And they won't advertise in our newspaper. Our financial support mainly comes from Mr. Lai.”

But Lai said Apple Daily will go on no matter what happens to him: “We will continue to the last day."

Reflecting on his detention in August, before authorities granted his bail and took away his passport, Lai said he has made peace with his future.

A tearful Lai explained how he had “escaped from China” when he was just 12 years old: “I came here with one dollar. I owe this place everything.”

As for his team of determined editors and journalists, Lai said, “They will have to be careful. I cannot protect them. But they are very motivated because they know now is the time to test their integrity.”

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