Who Is Jimmy Lai, Why Does His Trial Matter And How Is The UK Involved?

The British national's landmark trial in Hong Kong starts on Monday.
Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai
via Associated Press

One pro-democracy activist’s trial in Hong Kong will begin on Monday, and will be closely followed by people all around the world.

The media mogul and high-profile critic of Beijing Jimmy Lai is being tried on national security charges.

According to Reuters, queues of supporters formed overnight outside the court room where his case will take place for the next 80 days.

But why is this such a pivotal moment – and why is the UK involved at all?

Here’s what you need to know.

Who is Jimmy Lai?

The pro-democracy media tycoon and self-made millionaire made international news when he was arrested three years ago under a security law in Hong Kong.

Lai, a 76-year-old Chinese and British citizen, has been jailed since December 2020 and could be imprisoned for life if found guilty. Lai denies all charges against him.

He is currently serving a five-year, nine-month jail term after a fraud conviction over a lease row for his now defunct newspaper.

Lai, born in southern China in 1947, fled to Hong Kong as a 12-year-old, and soon went into the clothing industry. His political activism took off after the government’s brutal massacre of protesters in China’s Tiananmen Square back in 1989.

He was first jailed in 2021 for 13 months after taking part in a vigil for the massacre.

He also founded the Apple Daily tabloid in 1995 – a newspaper highly critical of Beijing, which even called for sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials.

Seen as Hong Kong’s last independent newspaper, it was shut down in 2021.

Lai stands in the crowd taking part in a sit-in called 'Occupy Central' or 'Umbrella revolution' in Hong Kong, 2014.
Lai stands in the crowd taking part in a sit-in called 'Occupy Central' or 'Umbrella revolution' in Hong Kong, 2014.
Lucas Schifres via Getty Images

What has Lai been accused of?

He is one of more than 250 activists, protesters and lawmakers who have been detained under a relatively new piece of Chinese legislation, the National Security Law.

This law was introduced following the mass pro-democracy protests which erupted in 2020 in Hong Kong – protests Lai was regularly part of.

He is therefore seen as a figure intent on undermining the state’s security and authority. Beijing’s foreign ministry has even called him a “notorious anti-China element”.

A colonial-era law based on his output on social media, interviews and articles published under the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, means he is facing sedition charges, too.

Six former executives at the tabloid were also arrested and accused of “colluding with foreign forces” including the US. They have pleaded guilty.

Why is the UK involved?

Lai is a British-Chinese citizen – but Beijing believes anyone born in China is only a Chinese national, and does not recognise dual nationality.

The UK handed control of its then territory, Hong Kong, back to China in 1997, who agreed it would govern under the “one country, two systems” principle – so the city became a Special Administrative Region.

The agreement meant Hong Kong would be largely autonomous except when it came to foreign and defence affairs and maintain an independent judiciary, freedom of assembly and speech for the next 50 years.

But in 2019, China proposed an extradition bill to allow HongKongers accused of a crime to be tried in China – prompting the largest protests ever seen in the region. That’s when China unveiled the National Security Law.

Violent protests in Hong Kong, November 2019
Violent protests in Hong Kong, November 2019
NurPhoto via Getty Images

And, in 2021, Beijing passed a new law which empowered it to prevent any critics getting into power in Hong Kong, and reduced how many representatives could be directly voted in by the general public.

So, Lai’s trial is seen as a major test for Hong Kong’s judicial independence.

Lai’s legal team has already alleged that the activist had been denied the right to a fair hearing, with no UK lawyer, claiming that he is being tried by three judges handpicked by Hong Kong’s leader, according to the BBC.

What’s the response been?

The US and the UK have called for him to be released.

Foreign secretary David Cameron said the National Security Law is a “clear breach” of the UK’s agreement with China.

In a statement released on Sunday, he said: “It has damaged Hong Kong, with rights and freedoms significantly eroded. Arrests under the law have silenced opposition voices.

“I am gravely concerned that anyone is facing prosecution under the National Security Law, and particularly concerned at the politically motivated prosecution of British national Jimmy Lai.”

He continued: “As a prominent and outspoken journalist and publisher, Jimmy Lai has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association. ”

Cameron also called for the National Security Law to be repealed and for the prosecution of all individuals charged under it to end.

Human Rights Watch called on “concerned governments” to call for the charges to be dropped, as they have “contributed to seriously damaging press freedom in Hong Kong”.

The US state department spokesperson Matthew Miller also condemned the charges against Lai, claiming they “undermined Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and harmed Hong Kong’s reputation as a international business and financial hub”.

Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in the UK has slammed Westminster’s involvement.

It said: “The UK’s backing of an anti-China, Hong Kong destabiliser who broke the law constitutes flagrant interference in a case that has already entered judicial proceedings.”


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