Catholic Pro-Democracy Figure Jimmy Lai Gets Jail Time for Involvement in Hong Kong Tiananmen Square Vigil

Lai, 74, has supported the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement for over 30 years and has said that his Catholic faith is a major motivating factor in his pro-democracy advocacy.

Hong Kong media tycoon and founder of Apple Daily newspaper Jimmy Lai Chee Ying arrives at the West Kowloon Magistrates' Court.
Hong Kong media tycoon and founder of Apple Daily newspaper Jimmy Lai Chee Ying arrives at the West Kowloon Magistrates' Court. (photo: Yung Chi Wai Derek / Shutterstock)

HONG KONG — Jimmy Lai, a Catholic and prominent figure in the ongoing pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, has been sentenced to a 13-month jail sentence for participating in a 2020 vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. 

Lai, alongside fellow activists Gwyneth Ho and Chow Hang Tung, received his sentence Dec. 9 for “inciting” and taking part in an “unlawful assembly.” 

Lai wrote in a statement read by his lawyer: “[L]et me suffer the punishment of this crime, so I may share the burden and glory of those young men and women who shed their blood [during the 1989 massacre] to proclaim truth, justice and goodness.”

Lai was among a group of thousands of people who defied a Chinese prohibition and attended a candlelight vigil in mid-2020 marking the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Annual vigils to remember the event had been held each year in Hong Kong up to that point; 2020’s vigil was ostensibly canceled over COVID-19 concerns. 

During the 1989 clash between protestors and Chinese troops, tanks rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and military forces opened fire on university students and other citizens calling for democratic reforms. According to one account, as many as 10,000 people died. Information about the massacre is widely suppressed in China. 

2021 marks the second year in a row that authorities have forbidden a commemoration of the event. 

During his trial, Lai had argued that he had lit candles during the vigil in a personal capacity, and had not “incited” others to join the unauthorised rally, the BBC reported. Lai is already serving a prison sentence for an earlier charge and will serve his latest sentence concurrently.

Lai, 74, has supported the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement for over 30 years and has said that his Catholic faith is a major motivating factor in his pro-democracy advocacy. He converted to Catholicism in 1997.

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China. Hong Kongers have, historically, largely enjoyed freedom of worship and evangelization, while in mainland China, there is a long history of persecution for Christians who run afoul of the government.

Millions of citizens of Hong Kong, including many Catholics, have in recent years participated in large-scale pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which came to a head during summer 2019. Beijing has in recent years tightened control over the island territory and cracked down on dissent.

On July 1, 2020, a controversial National Security Law went into effect in Hong Kong, having been imposed on the territory by Beijing, bypassing the Hong Kong legislature. In so doing, the Chinese government seized more power to suppress pro-democracy protests, which it sees as a direct challenge to its power.

Lai is a self-made billionaire and media mogul, and is one of the highest-profile people to be detained under the new law. Another notable arrested figure is Martin Lee Chu-ming, an octogenarian Catholic lawyer who founded Hong Kong’s Democratic Party in 1994. 

Under the new law, a person who is convicted of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces will receive a minimum of 10 years in prison, with the possibility of a life sentence. Lai’s latest sentence was not under this particular law, but he does face charges under the security law as well. 

Benedict Rogers, chief executive of the UK-based Hong Kong Watch, condemned the recent convictions and said that they go against Hong Kong’s Basic Law, or constitution. 

“These convictions make a mockery of claims that the Hong Kong Government continues to uphold the Basic Law, which guarantees the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of religion or belief,” Rogers said in a Dec. 9 statement. 

“It is increasingly clear that the Hong Kong Government is little more than a vassal of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Lacking autonomy, decency, and common sense, it appears hell-bent on erasing Hong Kong’s autonomy, culture, and history,” he wrote, adding that the international community “must respond by calling for the immediate release of Jimmy Lai and all political prisoners in Hong Kong,” and calling for sanctions.  

A band of nearly 200 police officers first arrested Lai on Aug. 10, 2020, along with at least nine others connected with the Apple Daily newspaper, as part of an apparent crackdown on civil liberties in the island territory. They also raided the newspapers' offices.

Apple Daily, the newspaper that Lai founded in 1995, has distinguished itself over the years as a publication critical of the Chinese government in Beijing, and strongly pro-democracy.

The island territory got a new bishop earlier this month, after lacking a permanent shepherd since January 2019. Father Stephen Chow Sau-yan, who most recently served as provincial of the Chinese Province of the Society of Jesus, was ordained a bishop in Hong Kong’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 4.

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