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Who Is Jimmy Lai? Prominent Hong Kong Publisher Faces New National Security Law

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In Hong Kong, media mogul Jimmy Lai cuts a broad swath. He is unique among its elite. For decades, the 72-year-old businessman has used his voice to defy Beijing and preserve Hong Kong's quasi-democracy. NPR's Julie McCarthy looks at Lai's life and the price he's now paying as Chinese authorities snuff out dissent in Hong Kong.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hong Kong police have arrested Jimmy Lai more than once for illegally joining the large-scale demonstrations that shook Hong Kong last year. But two weeks ago, authorities laid charges under a sweeping new national security law that criminalizes a vast and vague set of offenses. Lai is accused of colluding with foreign countries, which could draw life in prison.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCARTHY: Media and supporters mobbed Lai as he was released on bail. Painting this longtime democracy activist as a traitorous troublemaker rattled Hong Kong. Jude Blanchette with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says few faces have been as prominent in the pro-democracy movement as Jimmy Lai's.

JUDE BLANCHETTE: Both because of his bar fighting mentality, his willingness to publicly scrap with Beijing, but, crucially, the fact that he has deeper pockets than anyone and, as the head of a media outlet, has a megaphone that is available to few else in the city.

MCCARTHY: Lai's personal story reflects many of those who fled Chinese communist rule for Hong Kong. He escaped China as a young stowaway.

PERRY LINK: It was a fishing boat. Yeah, it was illegal transport of people under the guise of going fishing.

MCCARTHY: That's Perry Link, professor of modern Chinese literature at the University of California, Riverside, and a longtime friend of Lai's. A savvy teenager, Link says Lai took to the floor of a Hong Kong clothing factory, worked his way up to manager and ultimately the owner of a clothing empire that extended into the mainland.

LINK: He's deceptively smart.

MCCARTHY: And blunt. Link says the business collapsed in 1989 after the crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

LINK: He went out in public and called Li Peng, the premier, an idiot. And with that, all of his stores in mainland China were frozen. So he sold the whole chain.

MCCARTHY: He invested in a media company best known for its newspaper Apple Daily, which former Hong Kong journalist Yuen Chan says covers celebrities and gossip.

YUEN CHAN: It's a pretty racy kind of tabloid - definitely has its fair share of salacious content.

MCCARTHY: But she says it also has biting reports on the Chinese Communist Party and commentaries by public intellectuals. Hong Kongers protested Lai's arrest this month by snapping up shares in the paper's parent company, driving up the stock. Some 200 police raided Apple Daily when they handcuffed Lai. Perry Link suspects Beijing sees the media magnate not as a protest mastermind, but rather a useful tool to intimidate others.

LINK: The message to kids on the street in Hong Kong is, gee, if they can put Jimmy Lai away, they can put anybody away.

MCCARTHY: It's not clear what triggered the charge of colluding with foreign countries. Prior to the law, Jimmy Lai called on President Trump to, quote, "save Hong Kong." And Perry Link notes he met with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

LINK: With his plain-speaking normal self, he just said what he thought, and I think he charmed those people.

MCCARTHY: Soliciting the U.S. administration is a polarizing move within some elements of the pro-democracy movement, but China analyst Jude Blanchette says to suggest that Jimmy Lai is a toady of Western interests is a complete mischaracterization of motive.

BLANCHETTE: I think the move to call for the United States was based more out of desperation than anything else - that there was a full impending collapse of the autonomy that Hong Kong enjoyed.

MCCARTHY: Blanchette says the Chinese are relying on the trope of the foreign hand to crush dissent, and he sees broader implications.

BLANCHETTE: As we think about the global slide of pluralism, democracy, freedom, looking at these bastions and what is happening to them is extraordinarily important for all of us.

MCCARTHY: He calls Jimmy Lai's arrest a very dark moment.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUARE PEG ROUND HOLE'S "GOLD MAKES BLIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.