Unlike other Hong Kong tycoons who were careful not to provoke China’s leaders, Jimmy Lai had long been a proud rebel. He founded a newspaper with a decidedly anti-Beijing slant. He was a prominent face at massive pro-democracy protests. He lobbied American officials to protest the city’s declining autonomy.
Then, in 2020, Mr. Lai was arrested, becoming one of the first prominent targets of a national security law imposed by Beijing to crush the opposition. On Monday, after three years in prison and unusually lengthy procedural delays, Mr. Lai was finally having his day in court.
When Mr. Lai, 76, entered the courtroom, wearing a khaki blazer over a blue shirt, members of his family and dozens of supporters seated in the gallery waved at him. He waved back and smiled, after taking a seat in a booth enclosed by glass.
Mr. Lai has been charged with “collusion with foreign forces” under the national security law and faces up to life in prison if convicted. His trial is expected to run for 80 days. He is currently serving a five-year sentence for a separate fraud case. Human rights activists as well as the United States and British governments have denounced the charges against Mr. Lai as spurious and politically motivated.
“Jimmy Lai is a symbol of a blatant and very direct attack on what the Communist Party holds to be the more important thing: solid and thorough control” by the party over Hong Kong, said Willy Lam, an expert on China at The Jamestown Foundation in Washington.
At first the authorities had tolerated Mr. Lai, probably to show that Beijing respected the city’s autonomy, Mr. Lam said, but they drew a hard line against him after Hong Kong’s massive pro-democracy protests in 2019. “The Xi Jinping leadership has become much more conservative, if not reactionary,” Mr. Lam said.
The authorities have used the national security law not only against Mr. Lai, but also to silence dissent across the city. Their investigations have forced independent media to shut down, ousted pro-democracy lawmakers and quashed the rowdy demonstrations on campuses and streets that once distinguished Hong Kong from the rest of China.
Around the courthouse in Hong Kong where Mr. Lai’s trial was being held, security was tight. Dozens of police vans, including armored vehicles, lined the roads nearby. Alexandra Wong, a veteran activist known as “Grandma Wong,” shouted “Support Jimmy Lai! Stand for the truth!” before being fenced into an enclosure by police officers.
Since Mr. Lai’s arrest, the city has changed dramatically. It is now led by John Lee, a former security chief who waged the crackdown that put dozens of opposition figures like Mr. Lai behind bars. The government also now has the power to vet candidates running for elections, disqualifying anyone deemed disloyal to Beijing. Residents are encouraged to spy on their colleagues and neighbors.
Mr. Lai faces charges of colluding with foreign forces under the national security law as well as a sedition charge based on remarks he made online and articles his newspaper, Apple Daily, had published.
Mr. Lai’s trial will be the most high-profile test yet of how Hong Kong’s British-style judicial system will interpret and enforce Beijing’s national security law, in which political crimes are vaguely defined. China says the law is needed to eradicate threats to Beijing’s sovereignty, but activists and scholars have said the law will erode the city’s much vaunted judicial independence.
Mr. Lai’s prosecution has been marred by violations of his right to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch has said, noting that he is being denied a trial by jury, once a standard practice in Hong Kong when defendants faced serious punishments. Instead, the three judges hearing Mr. Lai’s case are among a group chosen by Hong Kong’s leader to handle national security cases.
The rights group also noted Mr. Lai’s prolonged detention before trial and that he was being denied the lawyer of his choice. Mr. Lai had sought to be represented by Timothy Owen, a senior British lawyer, but the authorities barred Mr. Owen from the case.
The charges against Mr. Lai center in part on posts he made on social media and articles published in Apple Daily, urging Western governments to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China. Prosecutors argued that such calls constituted an offense under the national security law. Mr. Lai also faces charges of sedition.
Mr. Lai, who was born on the mainland and moved to Hong Kong at age 12, wasn’t always a thorn in Beijing’s side. For a time, his story had been one of opportunity and success in Hong Kong, working his way up from the factory floor to make a fortune building Giordano, a clothing retail chain that opened outlets across Asia.
But in 1989, when student activists in Chinese cities pushed for a greater say in their government, Mr. Lai’s politics hardened. He printed protest T-shirts and banners in support of activists who flooded the streets of Beijing. After Chinese troops killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of demonstrators who had occupied Tiananmen Square, Mr. Lai decided to become a publisher, launching Next Magazine in 1990 and Apple Daily in 1995. “I believe in the media, by delivering information, you’re actually delivering freedom,” Mr. Lai said in an interview in 2020 with The New York Times.
He angered the authorities in 1996 by insulting Li Peng, the Chinese premier who had ordered the 1989 crackdown on student protesters. After that, the authorities in China began closing Giordano stores, and Mr. Lai decided to sell off his shares in the clothing business and focus on publishing.
In the past decade, Mr. Lai became Hong Kong’s main opposition media figure. His outlets gave blanket coverage to the pro-democracy protesters in 2014, when they occupied swathes of the city during what became known as the Umbrella Movement, and again in 2019 and 2020. He has been a frequent target, both verbally and physically: pro-Beijing media outlets have long vilified him, and the entrance to his home, a 1930s villa on a leafy street in Kowloon, has been firebombed.
In 2020, after Beijing imposed the new security law on Hong Kong, the authorities swiftly raided Apple Daily’s offices. Mr. Lai was arrested, then released on bail. The newspaper was forced to close in 2021 after several top editors and writers and a senior executive of Mr. Lai’s media group were also charged with “conspiracy to commit collusion” with foreign forces. Last year, those former employees pleaded guilty.
In August, The Associated Press released rare footage and photos of Mr. Lai at Stanley Prison, a maximum security facility, where he was spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. The A.P. reported that Mr. Lai, who could be seen in the photographs in a brown prison uniform, was let out for only 50 minutes a day to exercise alone in a small enclosure topped by barbed wire.
Mr. Lai’s son, Sebastien Lai, said in an interview that he had not seen Mr. Lai in three years, and noted that his father looked thinner in the images released by the AP. Sebastien Lai has been lobbying Western officials, including David Cameron, the British foreign secretary, and the United Nations to put pressure on Hong Kong to release his father.
“I think that every single day he’s in prison, he shows these freedoms that he fought for, these freedoms that the people of Hong Kong fought for, cannot be traded,” Sebastien Lai said in an interview.
“I’m incredibly proud of my father’s work,” he added. “And I’ll keep fighting until he gets out of prison.”
The Hong Kong authorities have denounced Sebastien Lai’s campaign — including his testimony in Geneva at the United Nations Human Rights Council in June — as “foreign interference” in judicial proceedings.