by Barb Fraze
(OSV News) — Prominent Hong Kong Catholic, philanthropist and media mogul Jimmy Lai pleaded not guilty to endangering national security in a trial that democracy advocates around the world said includes bogus charges.
If convicted in the trial before three high court judges, Lai, 76, could face life in prison. His trial which is expected to continue for months — is seen as a test of Hong Kong’s autonomy under a controversial national security law imposed by China in June 2020 to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Lai has donated millions of dollars to Catholic causes and has been the biggest financial backer of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired archbishop of Hong Kong, who baptized him in 1997.
Lai made his fortune through the mid-market fashion chain Giordano before putting his wealth into NextDigital and the city’s leading anti-Beijing newspaper, Apple Daily.
Hong Kong authorities arrested Lai in 2020 during a crackdown on pro-democracy advocates. Apple Daily closed the following June after Hong Kong authorities used the security law to raid the paper’s newsroom, arrest six staff members and freeze assets.
Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller told OSV News that Catholics were praying for Lai.
“The situation in Hong Kong is greatly concerning to Vancouver Catholics and in particular our Asian Catholic community,” Archbishop Miller said in a statement shared with OSV News Jan. 3, the day after Lai pleaded not guilty to three charges of sedition and collusion with foreign countries.
“Mr. Lai is a person of faith who is being silenced and imprisoned for his pro-democracy convictions. He is one of many others who are oppressed for their beliefs. Justice demands that we speak up for them and give them a voice.”
Archbishop Miller was one of 10 Catholic leaders who called for Lai’s release in early November.
Their petition said, in part, “In standing up for his beliefs and committing himself through his faith to challenge autocracy and repression, Jimmy Lai has lost his business, been cut off from his family, and has just surpassed 1,000 days in prison, while facing the prospect of many more years of incarceration to come.”
Other signatories included Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, and Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney.
But the church leaders’ statement was met with criticism by Hong Kong and Chinese government leaders, who claimed the Catholic leaders were interfering with politics and the law.
Dominic Lee Tsz-king, a Hong Kong legislator, called the petition “a striking example of religious power being commandeered for political ends” and said, “The very fact that Lai is a Catholic seems to be their only justification for their demand.”
It’s not the first time Catholic leaders called for Lai’s release. In February 2022, an international coalition of Christian leaders — including Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences — appealed for the release of Lai and other imprisoned activists as part of a Chinese New Year amnesty. They sent their appeal to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, a practicing Catholic.
“There is the very real prospect that Jimmy Lai may spend the rest of his years in prison. This would be a sad injustice and would raise unfortunate doubts as to China’s continued commitment to the ‘one country, two systems’ model and the tolerance it engenders,” the letter said.
During the trial, which began in mid-December, prosecutors played clips of interviews Lai gave to foreign media in which he called for sanctions against China.
Activists say the National Security Law has diminished freedoms, rights and a higher degree of autonomy, including an independent judiciary and legislature, guaranteed in the “one country, two systems” framework in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. The declaration established the conditions in which Hong Kong was transferred to Chinese control and for the governance of the territory beginning July 1, 1997.
The prosecutor called Lai “a radical figure” who conspired with others to bring “hatred and stir up opposition” against Hong Kong and Chinese authorities. He showed images of Lai alongside foreign government leaders, including former U.S. President Donald Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In a commentary published Dec. 21 by ucanews.com, Benedict Rogers, CEO and co-founder of Hong Kong Watch, noted that the judges in the trial were “handpicked by the regime, there is no jury, and Lai was denied bail and even denied the legal counsel of his choice.”
Prosecutors named Rogers as one of the foreign agents with whom Lai collaborated.
“The outcome of the trial is predetermined,” Rogers wrote. “The only thing in doubt is the length of the sentence he receives.”