Jailed Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai – the 74-year-old founder of the now defunct pro-democracy daily Apple Daily – faces trial for violating Hong Kong’s tough new national security laws. The Reverend Robert Sirico, a Roman Catholic priest and president emeritus of the Acton Institute, a think tank that promotes individual freedom based on religious principles, has known Mr. Lai, a convert to Catholicism, since 1997. He spoke with the Washington Times. correspondent Mark A. Kellner on the case and its significance to Hong Kong, press freedom and the state of civil liberties in China.
Question: You have known Mr. Lai for 25 years. From your point of view, is he guilty of anything?
Father Sirico: In the eyes of the Chinese, by their standards, he is “guilty” in the sense that he opposes totalitarianism. By any objective standard of justice, no, he is not guilty. He exercised freedom of expression. He was very restrained and cautious, especially in the midst of this volatile situation where people were calling for violence.
Question: What do you think will happen in his case?
Father Sirico: His case is coming in the next few days. I think that [the Chinese authorities] will do so under the Extradition Law, which he was protesting against, which these millions of people on the streets of Hong Kong are protesting against – the very law which I believe will be applied to him. My best guess is they’ll send him back to the mainland. This will give him less access to people. They will be able to control the news on [the trial] to a greater extent. And I think it’s very possible that he dies in prison.
Question: Have you been in contact with him? How does it hold?
Father Sirico: Yes, he is remarkably resilient. He went there with his eyes wide open. What people need to understand is that he was not caught in this situation. He stayed in Hong Kong on principle. I remember the last direct communication I had with him was a request for a spiritual reading. And I sent him things pertaining to the saints who were in prison, [such as] Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Binh, appointed Archbishop of Saigon when the Communists came to power there. And he was kept in prison for 13 years, nine of which were in solitary confinement. He kept diaries while in prison. So I suggested that [Mr. Lai] read these newspapers. His personal struggle he sees [as being] with Chinese people and people around the world to be free.
Question: What keeps someone like Jimmy Lai going through all of this?
Father Sirico: He knows the justice of his cause, and with a legal entity, it is quite sustained. … I think Jimmy sees this as a just cause. The second thing that sustains him—and I think that’s what adds an extra dimension that the Chinese are very obviously afraid of—is his religious commitment. Jimmy has a transcendent sense of justice in what he does. It’s incredibly supported. And the fear of religion in China – and they are ecumenical in this regard – really shows us that they understand that a person can be supported in the face of brutality.
Question: What are the implications of the Jimmy Lai case for the Chinese people?
Father Sirico: It is difficult for me to say from here what the Chinese know about this [case]. But there are cracks in the wall. Now, this whole protest, initially and on the surface, in regards to COVID restrictions, has given us a really quite shocking glimpse that a lot of people have had a pent-up rage about government control. I think the COVID thing is just the immediate opportunity for that. But as you saw immediately, people started talking about other things like [President Xi Jinping] and the Communist Party, the general lack of freedom and being a reasonable community of nations. I think the COVID thing could be like this [Tunisian] fruit vendor in the Middle East who set himself on fire and started the Arab Spring because it tapped into something much deeper. And I think the Jimmy Lai [case]if it can become known, it can also be a galvanizing issue.