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.
To learn more, JURIST Managing Editor for Interviews James Joseph spoke with Mark Sabah, the UK and EU Director at the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation (CFHK) about the case. Sabah’s perspective is particularly nuanced given his ties with another former political prisoner, Sergey Magnitsky. A Russian lawyer and auditor, Magnitsky uncovered a large-scale tax fraud scheme, but was subsequently arrested, tortured, and died in custody in 2009, leading to the international adoption of the Magnitsky Act sanctions targeting human rights abusers. At the time of his arrest, Magnitsky was working at Hermitage Capital Management, where Sabah also previously worked. After Magnitsky’s death, Sabah devoted years to lobbying for justice for his deceased colleague through international sanctions packages. In addition to his advocacy work related to global Magnitsky-related legislation, Sabah helped establish the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Awards.
For additional context on the case, see our related interview with the founder of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, Luke de Pulford.
JURIST: Could you give me a comment from the Committee for Freedom of Hong Kong on the case against Jimmy Lai and your perspective on it?
Mark Sabah: So first of all, this is a show trial. It’s a sham, and it’s not a real legal trial. It’s predetermined; everybody knows the outcome. The CCP is barely hiding the fact that it knows what the outcome is. They’ve already made statements saying that Jimmy Lai needs to be punished, and therefore, what kind of independent trial can we expect? Secondly, the National Security Law trials have a 100 percent conviction rate, which doesn’t lend itself to showing that the courts are legitimate, legal and independent. So chances are Jimmy Lai is going to be sentenced under the National Security Law. They’ll find him guilty. In fact, I would go further, he has to be found guilty. The Hong Kong authorities need him to be guilty. They need to show other Hong Kongers that there is no point in standing up and fighting for freedom. They have to make the point that if Jimmy goes down, all of you have to keep quiet, and the truth is, it’s worked. People don’t trust the authorities. Hundreds of thousands have left to the UK and other countries around the world. None of that shows that Hong Kong is a credible, stable, free city any longer. The fact that the Hong Kong authorities invest millions in PR campaigns: the Hello Hong Kong campaign, for example, free flights from Cathay Pacific, and advertising on the BBC website to Come to Hong Kong, all of those are not signs that the city’s doing well. So I would say that the trial of Jimmy Lai is not about Jimmy Lai. It’s about freedom and democracy. It’s about the fact that the CCP is imposing itself on the city. It’s nothing to do with justice. It’s nothing to do with any crimes. It’s purely about the CCP showing that it’s in control in certain cities. And I think the West happens to recognise that Hong Kong is now just another city like any other on mainland China, no different than Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Harbin, it’s just another tiny city. And as soon as Western businesses, banks, investment firms, hedge funds, and so on, realise that they are playing with fire by standing in Hong Kong, the better it will be for those people, those businesses, and their investors. So the trial is obviously devastating to those of us who are campaigning for Jimmy Li, but it’s an absolute death knell for the other 1,500 political prisoners because if Jimmy Lai, the most famous and the richest of Hong Kong people, can’t lawyer his way legally out of it, then what hope does some 18-year-old who was arrested on some charge for waving a flag or lighting a candle, who doesn’t have the influence and the connections around the world to convey to them. It’s actually a very, very sad period in Hong Kong’s history. I think we’re seeing the slow death of Hong Kong come to its conclusion. We can speculate about what would have happened if the 50-year Sino-British Declaration had reached its conclusion but instead, we’ve seen in a short period of three years, the slow death of Hong Kong right in front of our eyes, a slow motion, disruption of a city, however you want to describe it, and it’s incredibly sad.
JURIST: Do you think that in any way this is to make an example of him, being a UK national, and of the UK’s rule over the territory, and China exploiting this to be a show-trial as an example to the West?
Mark Sabah: So I would say yes, to the extent that the CCP, China loves telling everyone don’t interfere in our internal affairs, but it absolutely loves interfering in everyone else’s affairs. China loves telling anyone that’s our business, “butt out.” It loves interfering and telling others what they can and cannot do. The fact that Jimmy Lai is a British citizen, they just don’t care, because as far as they’re concerned, he’s not a British citizen, he’s a Chinese man.
I think the British government has also acted appallingly in this case, they have not from the very beginning, stood up and shouted and defended a British citizen, they are only now talking about trying to get consular access when they should have demanded consular access the minute he was arrested. The fact that it’s taken three prime ministers and four foreign secretaries before anyone would meet Jimmy Li’s son. The fact that he took David Cameron until December, although he’s the new foreign secretary, to say “Jimmy Lai is a British citizen and he should be immediately released.” We had members of the foreign office saying he’s a dual citizenship citizen, which is Beijing’s talking point, although Beijing, of course, doesn’t recognise dual citizenship. So you could argue that it’s punishing the British, but it’s certainly them spitting in the eye of the British and saying “We just don’t care what you think. We just don’t care.” And the truth is, that has done nothing about it, they just rolled over and said, “Don’t worry, we’re still gonna send ministers to talk about trade and investments.” It’s astonishing that any British Minister or MP should step foot in Hong Kong in an official capacity given that there is a British citizen in jail. The first thing that should have happened is that Prime Minister Johnson and then Truss, and then Sunak, should have immediately said, “There are no more official visits to Hong Kong. There will be no bilateral meetings with Hong Kongers.” Instead, we invited them to London, we invited them to attend the King’s Coronation, and we’re sending ministers to Hong Kong. It’s just simply mind-boggling.
JURIST: What do you think about the UK reaction to China and other states who have shown?
Mark Sabah: I spent six years working at Hermitage Capital with Bill Browder and we’ve lobbied successfully for the Magnitsky Law, and it was a huge success, and it’s a game-changing piece of human rights legislation. The astonishing thing is that for six years I went to parliament around the world and said, “Wake up. Putin is trying to take over our institutions and is destabilising our democracy. He’s spreading disinformation. He wants to take over countries in Eastern Europe. Please wake up.” And we were told there’s money, there’s businesses, football clubs and restaurant chains, they’re buying big houses, they’re buying yachts and that’s great for British trains; and we couldn’t do more to bend backwards, that our politicians, many of whom are exactly the same politicians as five years ago, will simply stand up and say “I’m having deja vu again,” and say “We need China investment for climate change” — What’s climate change got to do with a British citizen being in prison?
JURIST: What are you asking for, in the UK’s involvement in China, and also on Jimmy Lai?
Mark Sabah: James Cleverly, when he was Foreign Secretary, loved prefacing every comment he made on China with, “There are those who want us to disengage and decouple from China. Well, I won’t do that.” Who ever said this? No one has ever said that. But what we are saying is that having a trade relationship with China does not mean doing whatever they want whenever they want and accepting it. In any other world, if a Chinese diplomat drives a man into his consulate property and participates in a beating on camera, that diplomat would be expelled within 24 hours. Instead, when Bog Chan got beaten in Manchester, absolutely nothing happened. Apparently, the political officer was called into the Foreign Office, not even the ambassador. And then eventually, he was withdrawn and reposted somewhere else in December of last year. But that was to save face with the Chinese. So no rebuke, no punishment, whereas it should have been an immediate expulsion. That’s the kind of behaviour that allows me to keep going, exactly what happened with the Russians. How many people needed to be poisoned and killed in the UK before somebody said, “Russia, you’re out?” That’s it, we’re done. And instead, what do we do here? Why not invest in our nuclear power? Or our infrastructure? Why not have your cameras in our government buildings? Why not invest hundreds of millions into educational systems, specifically, dual-use technology, nuclear research, etc, etc? Why not have the most Confucius Institutes of any country in Europe? We just keep allowing it by choice because we’re afraid of China. They send out a threat: we capitulate. How about once in a while, we put out a threat and let them worry about it? Why does it always have to be the other way around?
JURIST: Given the above, is our current approach to China fit for purpose?
Our approach to China is economic weakness and economic greed, its political weakness; and it’s also Foreign Office arrogance. We don’t have a foreign office that’s fit for purpose for the 21st century, we don’t have a foreign office that knows how to deal with the rise of authoritarian states. And it’s not just China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Hungary, all these countries are going down the authoritarian route. They’re all working together. They’re all meeting and sharing information and data and they’re all passing political prisoners from one to the other than all avoiding sanctions together, and we’re still playing cricket while they’re MMA fighting. It’s just unbelievable that we have a foreign office that is no longer fit for 21st-century diplomacy. We need to be more muscular. We need to be a little bit more confident. We need to be a little bit willing to lose a bit of business but to gain credibility and strength on the world stage. We can do it by standing up to China on minor things like expelling a diplomat when he beats up a citizen who has the right to protest. We can do it when there’s transnational repression. We can do it on minor things like that. But if we’re not willing to, why on earth would we expect the government to stand up for a British citizen? My final point on that would be, that the Jimmy Lai case should send a shiver of terror across the spines of hundreds, if not thousands, of British people around the world. Because what the Foreign Office is effectively saying is, “If you get in trouble, we are not coming to help you if there’s a trade deal in the pipeline, or if they have our gas or oil, or if they are producing something that we need, you are going to sit in jail and languish. We are not coming to help you.” We’re very good at handing out new passports to Brits abroad in Magaluf. But when it actually comes to standing up for British citizens abroad, the Jimmy Lai trial shows that the British government will not help British citizens in trouble and we are showing that China’s calling the shots. It is determining our foreign policy. It is determining our trade policy, and we are simply following behind in their wake.
It’s an offshoot of the trade department. The fact that it’s called the FCDO, instead of just being the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, by managing it with development, we effectively had to align our policies with international trade. And the FCDO is really good, posting pictures on their Twitter accounts and so on, and junior diplomats with a poster saying Britain is great look at our sphere in Nairobi at a trade fair. And “here we are in Bogota, Colombia, speaking to local businesses.” That’s not what we need our Foreign Office for. That’s the trade department. Why is our foreign office doing that instead of creating an office for hostage retrieval, like the Americans have? Why haven’t they created that? Why don’t we have one of those? Alicia Kearns, our foreign affairs committee chairman is demanding that we have one. The whole committee has written a report saying we need one. The fact that there are so many British hostages held abroad, and we are doing nothing to get them out is astonishing while the Americans are creating a whole department to get people out. As authoritarians hold more and more American citizens, while the United Kingdom and dancing around and doing Welcome to Britain campaigns, and so on. And the other failure by the Foreign Office and simply this: there are no China experts. There’s no one who speaks Mandarin. They rotate people for six months or a year. So some 22 years and finishes fast track is put on the Hong Kong desk. They listen and learn, and they nod their heads no world experience whatsoever. And then six months later, one year later, they move to the Nigeria desk. So you have to start all over again every single time. So if you’re me, and you’re campaigning for Jimmy Lai, you know, I have to keep going back to a new class and say, “This is who Jimmy Lai is.” “Oh, that’s interesting. Oh, that’s terrible. Let me see what I can do.” And then in nine months time, “Hi, can I speak to Sarah?” “Oh, Sarah has moved on to the Venezuela thing. But Jonathan’s just started, why don’t you come in and talk to him.” It’s just ludicrous the way our Foreign Service works. It’s got to the point now where you never speak to the same person twice. It’s gotten to the point now where the foreign office just regurgitates line after line after line and doesn’t actually do anything. So it’s terrible.
JURIST: So how should the FCDO keep tabs on conditions in China?
Mark Sabah: The fact is, what if tomorrow the Prime Minister is going to China, who does he call in to brief him about what’s going on? He calls banks, investment firms, businessmen.
They immediately call the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. “Brief us on how life is in Hong Kong.” “It’s fantastic. We have great business deals lined up.” Why aren’t you talking to the people who actually know China? The first people you should be calling is us, Hong Kong Watch, IPAC. What should we be saying? What should we be demanding? Of course, you should talk to your chamber of commerce and your local consul generals, but their job is dependent on being positive about their relationship with a country or they wouldn’t have the job. You can’t have a consul general who is saying, “Oh, God, it’s awful.” Of course, he’s not going to say that. So if you really want to hear what’s going on, hear from the people who work there or who had to flee from there.
China has also been really good and doing something which other countries don’t do. If you speak ill of China, they revoke your visa. So we’ve had a politician that we met recently, who literally said,” I don’t want to have a photograph taken for you, and I don’t want any notes of this meeting because I’d like to visit China.” It’s remarkable. China does it with academia. You can’t criticise China in academia. You’ve got fantastic people who are China experts, but they won’t criticise China overtly. They’ll say, “Well, it’s not great. But there’s also lots of good,” to keep being invited back for research and so on. And when you have politicians saying “I don’t want a picture with you, because they may stop me from visiting China,” we know that there’s a bigger problem and China has been really good at yielding its carrot and stick.
So everyone capitulates. Instead of Britain saying, “You know what? That’s it. Done. No politicians.” In fact, China has sanctioned five British politicians because of their criticism of China. That basis on its own should exclude British parliamentarians from accepting any trips to China until that’s those sanctions have been lifted. They weren’t sanctioned for corruption. They weren’t sanctioned for human rights abuse. They weren’t sanctioned for theft or for criminal activity. There were sanctions for speaking out against something the country did. On that basis alone, there should be no delegation of elected officials to China or Hong Kong. There should be no official visits, and it should be the number one talking point. Remove the sanctions on our Parliamentarians. That’s it.