The Hong Kong trial of prominent pro-democracy activist and media mogul Jimmy Lai has garnered widespread attention globally. Lai, a 76-year-old British citizen and high-profile critic of Beijing, faces national security charges, and his trial is expected to take months.
Lai is a prominent figure in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. His detention and subsequent trial exemplify the challenges to freedoms of expression and association in the region under China’s National Security Law. Lai’s case also sheds light on the broader implications of the law, as more than 250 activists, protesters, and lawmakers have been detained under its provisions.
The UK’s involvement in Lai’s case stems from his status as a British citizen. His prosecution has prompted responses from both the UK and US governments, calling for his release and the repeal of Hong Kong’s National Security Law. Last month, Foreign Secretary David Cameron highlighted the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong and expressed grave concern over the prosecution of Lai and others under the law. Similarly, Human Rights Watch and the US State Department condemned the charges against Lai, emphasising the impact on press freedom and democratic institutions in Hong Kong. The Chinese embassy in the UK, however, criticised the UK’s involvement in the case as interference in judicial proceedings.
JURIST Managing Editor for Interviews James Joseph spoke to the Founder of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, Luke de Pulford, on the charges against Lai and being named as a co-conspirator in the case.
For additional context on the case, see our related interview with Mark Sabah, the UK and EU Director at the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation (CFHK).
JURIST: Could you start by going over who Jimmy Lai is, the background behind him, and what he’s been charged with by the authorities in Hong Kong?
Luke de Pulford: Jimmy Lai is a media mogul in Hong Kong, a British citizen and British passport holder, who had been working as a media Tycoon and pro-democracy activist for nearly all of his life, made a lot of money for a couple of very successful media outlets there, and he was an unashamed promoter of-democratic values, and as a result, happily amplified, on many occasions, pro-democratic voices in his media outlets. So, he was a bit of a bane of the pro-establishment authorities in Hong Kong and in mainland China. Now the slightly strange thing about this case, is that the reason Jimmy is implicated, and the reason they’re trying to convict him with various charges, is that they want to claim that Jimmy was behind the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. So it was and remains intolerable for Beijing that there could have been 2 million people in Hong Kong who explicitly rejected rule from mainland China or the rapid securitisation of Hong Kong that people didn’t want. And [Beijing] couldn’t stomach that, so they had to act to try to shut that down, which they did, by imposing the National Security Law, but to save face they also wanted to make out like this was some sort of Western conspiracy in Hong Kong, orchestrated by Western figures with accomplices in Hong Kong who were pro-West, and that’s why they’re trying to pin it all on Jimmy. So what you’re finding is that Jimmy is the sort of big bad-guy as far as Beijing is concerned, and the case, with a load of fabricated nonsense, is an attempt to try to pin the entire 2019 pro-democratic movement on Jimmy and make out like he was the black hand behind it all so it looks as if, you know, the people of Hong Kong in their desire for democracy were somehow manipulated by him. So that’s the broad story behind the whole thing, and that’s what you’re seeing playing out.
JURIST: We’ve seen the National Security Law clamp down on the free press, free speech and freedom of association in Hong Kong. What does this mean for the trial of Jimmy as well as in the wider international community in terms of covering this trial?
Luke de Pulford: The significance of it for Hong Kong is that the fundamental freedoms that not only were enjoyed there to a certain degree, but also promised to the people of Hong Kong in a binding international treaty, have been completely undermined. Jimmy’s case underlines that, for a number of reasons, not only are you seeing media freedom utterly defenestrated, there is no semblance of that now if nearly every pro-democratic or at least anti-establishment voice within the media has been silenced, which is pretty much the case in Hong Kong. Pro-democratic media outlets have nearly all been shut, and Jimmy’s case is emblematic of how serious that crackdown is because he was always seen as something of a banner carrier for the pro-democratic free press. So, you know, that’s the signal. If you dissent, you’re going to end up like him. And that’s very serious, but the international ramification is that Beijing has seen fit to completely destroy an international treaty, a binding international treaty between the UK and China over Hong Kong with the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which was supposed to guarantee freedom of the press and also to uphold the way of life and the autonomy of the people of Hong Kong, and that was supposed to be in force until 2047. Now, even in the words of the British government, it has “been completely destroyed.” That’s really significant because it shows that Beijing is very happy to violate international law and international treaties in order to get its own way, in order to pursue what they would call “domestic policy interests.” So they are willing to violate international law really with impunity, not only that, to go after UK citizens in the person of Jimmy Lai, and to go even further now and to try to rope foreign nationals like myself into the case. This likely means that Jimmy will never get out of prison. That seems to be the most likely outcome here, which is obviously extremely sad for him and his family. But Jimmy willingly submitted this in order to try to make an example of his case. And he knew he could have left Hong Kong and he knew that if were here to stay, he would be arrested, and he has been, and everything that follows has followed exactly as he knew it would. So it’s not as if this wasn’t anticipated. Jimmy knew it was coming, and he’s sacrificed himself. So it’s really very courageous what he’s done.
JURIST: I just wondered whether maybe you could go over the charges which are against him and explain those?
Luke de Pulford: Yeah, well, there are a number of new offences in the National Security Law in Hong Kong, which you could find previously in old ordinances and postcolonial ordinances in Hong Kong law that have been codified and made slightly different in the National Security Law. And [what is] particularly concerning from our point of view [is] “collusion with foreign forces,” which seems to mean – and I’m not joking, anything from retweeting foreign politicians or foreign activists like me, that’s genuinely something which has been mentioned, to speaking to politicians about political action which could be taken abroad to try to guarantee Hong Kongers’ way of life. So it’s a very, very broad spectrum. We don’t really know what it means is arbitrarily applied by the Hong Kong authorities, and Jimmy’s very much a victim of that.
Collusion with foreign forces is the third charge that Jimmy is having to endure, and that’s the one where you’ve got co-conspirators in it, and that’s where I was named as a co-conspirator of Jimmy’s “collusion.” By collusion, we assume they mean presumably to undermine the state. But we don’t really know exactly what that looks like because, again, this is uncharted territory. I imagine what we’ll see in court are various sorts of spurious interactions with people abroad people like me, people like Ben Rogers and others, in an attempt to make out like we were all in some sort of conspiracy to undermine China and Hong Kong. The reality of the thing very unfortunately, is that our work on Hong Kong really had nothing to do with me, like I mean Jimmy didn’t interact with IPAC (Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China) in that way at all. The only way that they’re able to get to that is via a guy who used to be our webmaster called Andy Li. Andy was arrested in 2020 and then, shortly after, tried to escape Hong Kong to Taiwan with 11 others. They were apprehended in Chinese waters and taken to Shenzhen prison in mainland China, where Andy was tortured. After his torture, very unfortunately, Andy decided to cooperate with the authorities and is going to be one of the key witnesses to make out that Jimmy was behind the whole thing because he doesn’t really have a choice, because he suffered, really unthinkably. So, it looks likely that Andy will take the stand to support Beijing’s narrative about Jimmy Lai, which is false, it is not true that Jimmy was in any way behind our work on Hong Kong isn’t correct. But Andy will say that, unfortunately, that’s how corrupt the legal system has become in China. They will rely on coerced testimony from a torture victim dragging in foreign citizens to try to implicate an innocent man.
JURIST: My next question is about the extraterritorial nature of the National Security Law and China implicating foreign citizens in breaches of the National Security law: How do you feel being named as a co-conspirator in the case? And what was your response to it?
Luke de Pulford: Well, I mean, it’s obviously more serious than the previous stuff, but what was kind of important to emphasise is that I’m more or less used to this stuff right now. I mean, I’ve had somebody impersonating me with various email accounts and other accounts for well over three years. I’ve been mentioned a number of times in courts in relation to the first National Security Law cases. So I’m kind of used to it, and that isn’t to diminish the impact. I mean, they want this to have an impact, but what I would say is that, you know, whatever difficulty I might encounter as a result of this is really nothing compared to what Hong Kongers who had to flee their home to have had to endure, or Andy Lee to endure in Shenzhen prison, or many other people who have to remain in Hong Kong, living under an increasingly totalitarian government. I still enjoy freedoms in the UK that they don’t or can’t. So, I don’t want to give these guys the satisfaction of thinking that they’ve got to me. I got used to the way that they behave, and as far as I’m concerned, there are no depths to which they went to think. So we’re not bound by this kind of thing. It’s just unfortunately expected, and what we want to do is to convert it into some meaningful action. You know, we need our government to defend their citizens now. One of my Japanese colleagues has been dragged into this, and we would expect and ought to be entitled to our Foreign Secretary speaking up. So I hope that that will come.
A further interview on the UK’s response with Mark Sabbah from The Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation will follow.
A full translation of the court proceedings is published at the end of every day in session on this website.