Friday, May 12, 2023

By:  Susan Crabtree

Black Hills Pioneer

Over the last month, TikTok has three times interrupted or shut down content on an account airing a powerful documentary about Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong entrepreneur, newspaperman, and pro-democracy activist imprisoned for more than two years for his role in criticizing the Chinese government.

After censoring its videos of Hong Kong police beating and teargassing protesters in 2019, TikTok last week suspended the account distributing the documentary about Lai, and then reinstated it after multiple media outlets reported on its unexplained shutdown.

Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a Michigan-based think tank that produced the documentary, says TikTok’s interference in the promotion of the Jimmy Lai film “The Hong Konger” is hardly a coincidence. In fact, he argues, it’s clear evidence of Beijing’s influence over content on the Chinese social-media platform’s parent company, Bytedance, despite TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s March testimony to Congress denying the platform would ever censor on behalf of China’s Communist Party.

In front of an exuberant crowd, North Carolina’s Democratic governor vetoed legislation Saturday that would have banned nearly all abortions in his state after 12 weeks of pregnancy.

 “It is ironic that content promoting ‘The Hong Konger’ on TikTok would generate account disruptions and temporary suspensions, particularly when TikTok insists it does not cater to the Chinese Communist Party in the adjudication of its content,” Sirico, president emeritus of the Acton Institute, plans to tell the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) Thursday afternoon, according to written testimony he submitted to the commission ahead of his appearance.

Sirico, a Catholic priest and a close personal friend of Lai’s for more than 25 years, will testify before the panel along with Lai’s son, Sebastien, about Lai’s unjust prosecution and imprisonment in Hong Kong. Jimmy Lai is one of more than 1,000 political prisoners Hong Kong authorities have arrested and sentenced under the national security law imposed by Beijing after the 2019 pro-democracy protests swept the once semi-autonomous city.

Their testimony, along with that of several other human rights advocates, corresponds with the release of the commission’s report on Hong Kong judges’ role in undermining the rule of law in Hong Kong through broad interpretations of the national security law. The law, enacted in 2020, criminalizes any form of government protest, characterizing different forms of pro-democracy activism as subversion, secession, collusion with foreign or external forces, and terrorism, defined as the use of violence or intimidation against people. Those prosecuted include journalists and online protest organizers, even those whose crime is limited to displaying flags or banners or chanting slogans critical of the Chinese government.

Before the new law, there were 26 political prisoners held in Hong Kong. As of early May, judges in Hong Kong had convicted 1,198 protesters and pro-democracy advocates, 612 of whom were sentenced to an aggregate of 772 years in prison, according to the CECC report.

“By design and in practice, the [national security law] created a parallel legal system that weakens judicial independence and strips criminal defendants of basic due process protections available in the existing common law system, which is referenced in the Basic Law,” the CECC report states. The CECC, also known as the China Commission, is co-chaired by Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat. 

Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” principle is enshrined in a document called the Basic Law, which serves as the city’s mini-constitution and protects rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, which do not exist in mainland China. It was created through an agreement between Britain and China and came into effect on July 1, 1997, the day Hong Kong returned to Chinese control. These protections for Hong Kong are valid for 50 years after the handover, but under President Xi Jinping’s rule, China has clamped down control over the city and has stated that his ultimate goal is to reunite Hong Kong and Taiwan with mainland China.

The CECC report calls out 29 Hong Kong judges involved in national security law prosecutions by name and urges Congress to pass the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which would give President Biden the authority to impose sanctions on these judges for undermining the Basic Law in its rulings against protesters and dissidents. The U.S. has previously sanctioned judges in Venezuela and Iran for carrying out similar injustices by orchestrating show trials and prosecuting trumped-up charges against political prisoners.

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, the Chinese government representatives in Hong Kong pushed back on the CECC report and its policy recommendations, arguing that it and other congressional efforts to condemn Beijing’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong amount to a campaign to “openly defame and smear China’s national security law” and provide support for “anti-China elements like Jimmy Lai.”

A spokesperson for the commissioner’s office of the Chinese foreign ministry in Hong Kong told the CCP-run Global Times that the actions of Western politicians would “expose their own ugliness and allow the world to see their true nature and sinister intentions in colluding with and sheltering anti-China elements and interfering with and disrupting the rule of law” in Hong Kong.

Since the 2019 Hong Kong protests, more than 80 groups associated with the pro-democracy movement have been forced to close, and 188 pro-democracy leaders have been arrested, 109 convicted, and 46 imprisoned, human rights experts say. Dozens more have been incarcerated for months or years, awaiting their trials.

Sebastien Lai’s testimony chronicles his father’s life story – how the Chinese Communist Party targeted him for decades, eventually arresting, imprisoning, and prosecuting him in December 2020 under the national security law.

Jimmy Lai was born in China’s Guangdong province in 1947. His family was wealthy but lost all their property when the communists took power in 1949. At just 12 years old, he fled to China and traveled to Hong Kong on a fishing boat, immediately working in a garment factory sweatshop to pay back the cost of his passage. From the shop floor of the textiles industry, Lai rose through the ranks, eventually starting his own clothing firm, Giordano, which became an international success and made him a billionaire.

Until 1989, Lai, a devoted Catholic, concentrated on growing his clothing business. But his son describes the Tiananmen Square massacre as “a wake-up call for him.”

“My father then resolved to direct his energy to support the fight for democracy and holding the powerful in Beijing to account, whatever the personal cost to him,” Sebastien Lai plans to tell the panel, according to his written testimony.

At first, Lai used his company to distribute t-shirts emblazoned with pro-democracy messages. In 1990, he launched Next Magazine, a Chinese-language weekly magazine that covered current affairs and business news. Then in 1995, he founded a newspaper, Apple Daily, which quickly became the largest and most popular Chinese-language newspaper in Hong Kong, known for its anti-corruption and pro-democracy stance.

Shortly after launching his media ventures, the CCP began targeting him, threatening to close down all of his Giordano stores in mainland China. Lai sold the Giordano stores but continued his journalistic enterprises despite an aggressive intimidation campaign by Chinese authorities, including what his son describes as fire-bombings of his businesses and home, and long-running surveillance against all family members with surveillance vans and cameramen stationed outside his home.

“My father’s Catholic faith is also relevant to the way in which the CCP targeted him for many years,” his son plans to testify. “His close friendship with Cardinal Zen and other human rights defenders and activists in Hong Kong who draw strength from their religions has become a focal point of the CCP repression against him.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, is a retired Catholic bishop of Hong Kong whose arrest last May under the national security law sent shockwaves through the Catholic community, both in Hong Kong and globally. At first, he was arrested for suspicion of colluding with foreign forces, but after the international uproar, was charged over his association with a now-defunct organization that helped protesters in financial need. In November, a Hong Kong judge convicted and fined him and five others for failing to register the nonprofit, which helped pay medical and legal fees for arrested protesters in 2019.

Jimmy Lai, who has been imprisoned continuously since December 2020, has faced multiple charges under the national security law. In September 2021, Next Digital, Lai’s media company, said the new crackdown on government criticism left it no way to operate and it shut down. Just months earlier, Hong Kong officials froze some of the company’s bank accounts, forcing its flagship newspaper, Apple Daily, to close. The newspaper was raided by hundreds of officers in a show of force, with Jimmy Lai hauled away from the building in handcuffs. Along with Lai, several top editors and executives at Next Digital were charged with crimes.

Lai has been sentenced to five years and nine months for what he has characterized as false charges related to a breach of his Next Digital office lease. He will stand trial later this year on national security law and sedition charges.

“I know the outcome is a foregone conclusion,” Sebastien Lai plans to testify. “The security minister has recently boasted of having a 100% conviction rate in national security cases, and the [national security law] itself is designed to criminalize all dissent, all criticism of authorities.”