Jimmy Lai fled the reach of Beijing, but Beijing followed him.
Lai, the flamboyant businessman and founder of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, arrived in Hong Kong at age twelve as a stowaway on a boat from the Chinese mainland. The runaway began his business career as a child laborer in a garment factory and ended it a billionaire — Hong Kong, when it was the world’s freest city, was the sort of place where that could happen.
Lai used his fortune, his celebrity, and his newspaper to support the cause of liberty and democracy in Hong Kong, and was so disinclined to submit to Beijing’s rule that he became a British national in 1996 as the island reverted to Communist Party control. He is at the moment a 72-year-old political prisoner in one of Xi Jinping’s gulags. But as Henry David Thoreau argued, prison is the only fitting place for an honest man living under a criminal government, and Lai has described his incarceration as the “pinnacle” of his career.
Lai, a Catholic, takes a long view of his situation. It would be interesting to know what he makes of the Holy See’s remarkably accommodating policy regarding Beijing — there was a time, not long ago, when a pope knew what to do with a Communist police state.
Lai’s personal assets have been frozen, and it is likely that Beijing will continue to think of pretexts for extending his imprisonment until old age or failing health takes him out of the fight. Apple Daily has soldiered on, but on Wednesday the Beijing junta arrested its editor-in-chief, Ryan Law, along with other top editors, and seized its assets and bank accounts, which will, in effect, dissolve it as a business. Though police officers were seen hauling away boxes of paperwork and scrolling through computer files, Apple Daily’s offense is not keeping secrets but refusing to keep them. Apple Daily’s crime is saying what everyone knows to be true.
The newsroom was declared a crime scene. Coming from Beijing, that declaration is something better and more meaningful than 10,000 Pulitzer Prizes. Li Kwai-wah, who represents the police part of the Chinese police state in Hong Kong, warned the general public not to share Apple Daily stories on social media. “As a law enforcer, I would advise you not to invite suspicion,” he said. Gangsters all talk the same way: “Nice little setup you have here. Be a shame if anything happened to it.”
Li may be a coward and a bully acting on orders from murderers and thieves, but he is correct in his advice: You can have a country in which Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily reporters are free to run around and kick up dust and publish things that Xi and Li would prefer to remain unpublished, or you can have a predictable totalitarian state — you cannot have both. The American Bill of Rights is wise in its priorities, because the first business of tyrants is always to disarm the people literally and then intellectually.
And when you decide that you cannot live in security while enterprising reporters and columnists and their rowdy newspapers are at liberty, then you have made an indictment of your own system and its leaders that is far harsher than anything Jimmy Lai has put forward. Shutting down newspapers is an admission that yours is a kingdom of lies. When the government shuts down a newspaper, it is the government, not the newspaper, that has been judged. All the government has done is shown that it has more brute force at its disposal — for the moment. Brute force does not last forever. There was a China before the Communist Party, and there will be a China after the Communist Party.
But the damage done in the meantime will not be contained within China.
“The great strength of the totalitarian state is that it forces those who fear it to imitate it,” observed Adolf Hitler, who would have known. And there are those who envy the Chinese state its brute power to act, a decisive force that Americans have coveted since Ezra Pound was singing the praises of Benito Mussolini and the “totalitarian states, which won’t stay still” but reserve to themselves the ability to command resources according to a national program: Tom Friedman and his “China for a Day” fantasies, Donald Trump and his ghastly admiration for the men who ordered tanks to drive over the protesters at Tiananmen Square, thereby demonstrating the “power of strength,” etc.
And there are a great many Americans — maybe even a majority — who feel about the press about same way Xi Jinping does: “the enemy of the people,” as you may have heard it put from time to time. Very likely King George thought the same thing about the two-dozen pseudonymous colonial newspaper polemicists who were all, as it turns out, Sam Adams. Very likely the Inquisition thought the same thing about the enterprising Dutch printers who published those smuggled Galileo manuscripts. They had their reasons — they always do: raisons d’état.
There is not very much that we as individuals can do for Jimmy Lai — and, as individual Americans, not much that we can expect our lurching and staggering government to do on our behalf. But we can cherish what he cherishes and speak the truth that he can no longer speak in public.
And we can at the very least resist the urge to imitate those who have put him in prison, the urge to embrace (even if we never acknowledge the truth of it) his tormenters’ principles and techniques in the mistaken belief that doing so will bring us power with which we may do good rather than evil. We cannot sit in prison with Jimmy Lai, but this much, at least, we can do.