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Hong Kong media tycoon and democracy activist Jimmy Lai goes on trial

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A major trial is kicking off in Hong Kong this week. Jimmy Lai, the media tycoon and democracy activist, is going to court after more than 1,000 days in detention.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Lai was arrested in 2020. The newspaper he started, called Apple Daily, was shut down the following year. China's prosecuting Lai under the country's sweeping national security law. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

MARTIN: With us to explain why this trial is so important is NPR's Emily Feng, who is nearby in Taiwan. Good morning, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So why is Hong Kong prosecuting Lai so aggressively?

FENG: Well, because Jimmy Lai has become a symbol of opposition against Beijing's control of the region. Everyone in Hong Kong knows his story - how he escaped as a child stowaway to Hong Kong and then had this extraordinary rise as a textile and clothing mogul. And his fortune is what kept Apple Daily going. This was an influential tabloid that was unabashedly in support of democratic reform and anti-government protests, and that put Lai in the crosshairs. He's currently serving a five-year sentence for fraud, but today he's on trial for much more serious charges of collusion with foreign forces under the national security law. This is a closely watched trial in Hong Kong today. There were journalists outside the courthouse, a few supporters, but mostly hundreds of police guarding the courthouse where he's being tried. Here's Lai's son, Sebastien Lai, who lives in Taiwan.

SEBASTIEN LAI: Hong Kong is trying to tell the rest of the world that they're open for business, that they want foreign direct investment. But if you essentially criminalize journalism, you know, just supporting democracy, well, it's very hard to do that.

FENG: He says his father's case is being turned into a political show for Beijing to show just how aggressively it will punish any dissent.

MARTIN: Are other people besides Lai being targeted by authorities?

FENG: Oh, absolutely. I mean, they've basically smothered all opposition in Hong Kong. Independent media outlets have mostly closed, like Apple Daily, or a few people who haven't been arrested have moved abroad. They've sentenced many activists and lawmakers who spoke out or protested, sometimes years before the national security law took effect. And they're also going after people living abroad. So this month, for example, Hong Kong's government issued more arrest warrants offering rewards of hundreds of thousands of dollars for anyone who could turn in five activists who live outside of Hong Kong. One of these activists is Simon Cheng. He was detained while working as a trade officer at the British consulate in Hong Kong. And it's his advocacy against Beijing in the United Kingdom that he's wanted for.

SIMON CHENG: They try to do a political show, no matter where you are, no matter what nationality you're holding, provided you're critical of the Chinese leadership or the government's policy, and you will be the target and you're violating their own law and they will hunt you down.

MARTIN: So when do we expect a verdict, and is there any chance there might be an acquittal?

FENG: Lai's legal team is saying that the trial is going to take at least a few weeks. There's estimates of up to 80 days. So this trial is going to stretch far into early 2024. Chances for an acquittal for Lai are very low. So far, there has been a 100% conviction rate with people charged under the national security law. Even if he is acquitted, he faces multiple other sentences that he's already been found guilty for.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Emily Feng in Taiwan. Emily, thank you so much.

FENG: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.