Documentary about Hong Kong media mogul, activist highlights the deterioration of the city's freedoms

·3 min read
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai is pictured here in June 2007, attending a seminar on the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover organized by the Democratic Party in Hong Kong.  (Kin Cheung/Associated Press - image credit)
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai is pictured here in June 2007, attending a seminar on the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover organized by the Democratic Party in Hong Kong. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press - image credit)

A documentary about a Hong Kong media tycoon and activist, which explores how rights and freedoms have deteriorated in the city over the last few years, will be screened on Sunday at the VIFF Centre in Vancouver.

Produced by the Acton Institute, a Michigan-based research and educational institute, The Hong Konger profiles Jimmy Lai, founder of the city's pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily.

"He was so angry at the killings in China in 1989 in Tiananmen Square that he wanted to start a newspaper and magazine, as he said, to give people choice," Mark Clifford, a longtime friend of Lai and former board director of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily, told CBC On the Coast guest host Margaret Gallagher on Friday.

"He was an incredibly wealthy man but decided he would stay and fight for democracy in Hong Kong."

Lai, who left Guangzhou, China in 1959 for Hong Kong, then a British colony, first worked his way up the textile industry. In 1981, he founded the successful clothing brand and retailer Giordano. He founded Apple Daily in Hong Kong in 1995.

The newspaper has often criticized the Chinese and Hong Kong governments for tightening control over the city and walking back on promises by Beijing that the territory could retain its freedoms when it was handed over from Britain in 1997.

A month after Beijing implemented the national security law in Hong Kong in July 2020 — a vaguely-worded law that criminalises secession, sedition, collusion and terrorism — Lai was arrested, along with other Apple Daily executives and its editor-in-chief.

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Tyrone Siu/Reuters

He was charged under the city's national security law on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces. The maximum penalty is life in prison.

Hong Kong's then-chief executive, Carrie Lam, claimed Apple Daily was not engaged in "normal journalistic work." The Chinese government's Liaison Office has said "freedom of the press is not a 'shield' for illegal activities."

Clifford, who is based in Washington, D.C., and recently wrote Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World, a book on China's relationship with Hong Kong and its implications for the world, says the national security law has completely changed the media landscape in Hong Kong.

"There's not much of it left, the landscape is pretty flat. There's a government broadcaster parallel to the CBC, independent, feisty and that's been more or less shut down," he said, referring to Radio Television Hong Kong.

Apple Daily was forced to close in June 2021 after Hong Kong authorities froze its bank accounts. Other independent media outlets, such as Stand News and Citizen News, also shut down.

Apple Daily via The Associated Press
Apple Daily via The Associated Press

According to Reporters Without Borders' annual press freedom rankings released earlier this year, Hong Kong plunged from 80 in 2021 to 148 in 2022. China is ranked at 175, out of 180 countries.

As president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, Clifford says he is trying to keep the spotlight on the city.

"Obviously there are a lot of bad things happening in the world but especially the political prisoners in Hong Kong deserve to be remembered. We're trying to work through legislators especially in the US and UK," he said.

"We also think punitive actions need to be taken against judges, prosecutors, police, and Executive Council members who are enabling this repression and human rights abuses, so we're pushing for sanctions against specific individuals."

Clifford adds that he is concerned about Lai's well-being as he waits for trial at the end of the year or early 2023.

"He's sitting in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison, 74 years old and a diabetic. He's always a man of peace but seen as a great threat to the Chinese authorities."