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National security trial for activist and publisher Jimmy Lai begins in Hong Kong


Hong Kong's highest-profile national security trial got underway amid tight security on Monday. It's against Jimmy Lai, a media mogul and democracy campaigner. And as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, he's all but certain to be convicted.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Jimmy Lai fled mainland China as a child at the end of the 1950s, seeking a better life in British-run Hong Kong. And he succeeded. He became one of the territory's wealthiest tycoons, presided over its most popular newspaper, Apple Daily, and came to be one of the most recognizable and passionate figures in its democracy movement. Here he is on NPR in 2019, at the peak of a wave of huge protests against the Beijing-backed government.


JIMMY LAI: Let's put it this way, if we don't fight, we will lose everything. We will lose the rule of law. We will lose the human right. We will lose the way of life that we used to. We will lose, you know, the freedom we have. But if we fight, that might, you know - there may be a chance. There may be a miracle.

RUWITCH: That hasn't happened. Rather, the government has cracked down hard, helped by what critics say has been a potent weapon - a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on the territory in mid-2020. The authorities say the law has helped restore stability. Lai faces charges of colluding with foreign forces and sedition. The maximum sentence is life behind bars.

JOHN BURNS: Taking Jimmy Lai down is very important for the central authorities, and so this is how they are doing it.

RUWITCH: That's John Burns, a professor emeritus at the University of Hong Kong.

BURNS: They see Jimmy Lai as the poster boy for all that went wrong in 2019.

RUWITCH: Lai is already doing time. He's about halfway through a near six-year sentence for fraud linked to his newspaper business, which was shut down in 2021. Lai's son, Sebastien, says it's a reminder to anyone who thinks politics and business can be separated in today's Hong Kong.

SEBASTIEN LAI: How do you function with the financial center that is so arbitrary with its use of the law?

RUWITCH: The U.S. and British governments renewed their calls ahead of the trial for the release of Lai, who's a British citizen. Beijing and the Hong Kong government seem emboldened, though. Hong Kong issued arrest warrants last week for five overseas activists, offering bounties of up to the equivalent of $128,000. One of the warrants is for Joey Siu, a U.S. citizen living in Washington, D.C., who participated in the 2019 protests.

JOEY SIU: I find it very, very ridiculous.

RUWITCH: She says the accusations against her are focused on a period during which she was living in the United States, doing advocacy for Hong Kong with foreign legislatures.

SIU: I think that really shows the international community that no foreign nationality, no one could be safe from the national security law.

RUWITCH: For Jimmy Lai, the trial that started on Monday is expected to last into next year. And his odds are not good, according to his son.

S LAI: The whole thing is entirely - it's entirely a sham trial.

RUWITCH: The government, he says, has a 100% conviction rate so far in national security cases.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN YOUNGE, ET AL. SONG, "VISIONS") 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.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.