Jimmy Lai’s Walk of Faith

COMMENTARY: The imprisoned media magnate’s story is one of bravery, hope and, above all else, faith.

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai pauses next to a copy of Apple Daily's July 1, 2020, edition during an interview Hong Kong Wednesday, July 1, 2020.
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai pauses next to a copy of Apple Daily's July 1, 2020, edition during an interview Hong Kong Wednesday, July 1, 2020. (photo: Vincent Yu / AP)

I could see my boss getting agitated. The executive he had just hired for our television business, a former political operative, was intently describing the hit he was about to apply to a couple of old political enemies. A newspaper editor and I exchanged glances, as we knew where this was going. 

After the lunch, my boss’ assistant called me back to Mr. Lai’s office. I never even sat down. 

“He’s mean,” Mr. Lai said. “Can you handle it?” 

Meet the Jimmy Lai I know. 

The Jimmy Lai the world has come to know is the Hong Kong media magnate, who, over the next three months, will be persecuted for what the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government says are violations of the Hong Kong 2020 National Security Law (NSL). 

They are violations the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) alleges happened through his collusion with foreign forces (Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo and others), as well as subversive actions undertaken through his news interviews and writings. 

If this was the U.S., Mr. Lai would be accused of “politicking.” Oddly uncomfortable for the CCP is this was also called politics in Hong Kong, at least it was up until the passing of the NSL in June 2020. Also uncomfortable for all is that the vast majority of what Mr. Lai is being charged with happened before June of 2020, which makes the case against him retroactive. 

There’s not going to be much courtroom drama over the next few months; the trial will take at least 80 days, and the 100% conviction rate the Hong Kong government has for national security trials will, I assure all, remain intact. 

But there’s a better story in this inquisition: the story of Jimmy Lai. It’s one of bravery, hope and, above all else, faith. 

I tell the firing story (he was fired) not because Mr. Lai thought a guy was mean. The poor fellow didn’t know he broke two of the boss’ rules. The first was a version of “The Strong Protect the Weak.” We were the largest news media company in Hong Kong and Taiwan. We were the powerful. We didn’t “go after” people. The second sin was “no indulgences.” We don’t do personal vendettas. 

If you want to understand Jimmy Lai and his faith, then knowing this story will get you most of the way there. Since I have known him, he walks the walk. There is not a petty bone in the guy’s body — and charity in every action. 

But if you’re looking for the answer to why a man would stay in Hong Kong, knowingly facing certain prosecution and prison by the Chinese Communist Party, I think each reader will have to come to his or her own conclusion. 

Yet I would ask that one does the unusual and consider, just for a moment: An act of selflessness, an act of courage, is not just a reaction, but in rare cases can be an intellectual journey undertaken with as much logic and rational thought as emotion and love. 

It is the journey of the oppressed Christian who wakes each day knowing that his or her faith places one in harm’s way, yet who, with awareness and forethought, kneels and prays. It is the activist for democracy who knows his next protest may be his last. Jimmy Lai is both. 

It is this combination — devout Catholic and democracy advocate — that, when further combined with being the largest media owner in the community, makes his existence terribly inconvenient for Beijing.

Catholics are aware of another inconvenient man who would not lie for a king. Jimmy Lai may well be the most inconvenient man in China at this time, and, like St. Thomas More, he may well pay the ultimate sacrifice for his steadfastness to his beliefs.

That’s not a badge of honor I seek for my boss and friend. I want him out, and I think his release is in the best interest of China. But I am also the one he told, multiple times, to make certain there was no compromise, no payment, no deal where it looks like he admits wrongdoing to secure his freedom. I know Mr. Lai is willing to leave Hong Kong, but not at the price of refuting his beliefs. 

Where does this resoluteness originate? 

Mr. Lai is great friends with Cardinal Joseph Zen, a favorite of neither Beijing nor the Vatican. It was Cardinal Zen who brought Jimmy, a convert, into the Church in 1997, and it is Cardinal Zen to this day who visits him in prison, when allowed, and attends his trial. 

Cardinal Zen is the perfect priest for Jimmy. Both were born in China. Both saw the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Both were persecuted by the communists, and both worked tirelessly in defense of democratic rights. 

I have always viewed Jimmy’s faith through Cardinal Zen, in that Lai and the cardinal are forged in the fires of the China of the 1940s and 1950s. And while Cardinal Zen is a lifelong Catholic, and Jimmy a convert, it is their faith that steels them against a communist system that rolls over others. They are two of the toughest men I have ever known, yet it is not a brashness or call for violence that emanates from either — it is faith. There is a pleasant rigidity to Jimmy, a certainty, not in being right all the time, but in following the path of the Lord he walks with his friend Cardinal Zen. 

Some might call the two of them defenders of the faith. That would be too passive a version, in my book. Lai, like Cardinal Zen, sees in Hong Kong injustice and repression, and the logic of our faith as Catholics is that we must oppose these evils. Some of us pray about it; others, like Lai and Cardinal Zen, are willing to sacrifice all to oppose repression. 

It would be remiss not to mention Jimmy’s wife, Teresa, a rock of faith who originally introduced Jimmy to Catholicism, raised their children in the Church, and kept a home where God was a constant force. He told me a few times that he doesn’t think he would have been a good man if it wasn’t for Teresa. 

I have worked for Jimmy for 22 years; still do. In that time, we probably had less than a dozen conversations on personal faith before 2019. That was just not what we talked about. Yet, as the protests in Hong Kong picked up, as it became clearer that he would not be leaving Hong Kong, he became much more open that if this was the path that God had chosen for him, he was content to walk it.

It is in his walk of faith that I think we find the true Jimmy Lai. Cardinal Zen says Jimmy is so advanced in his religious studies that he, Cardinal Zen, must read up to answer Jimmy’s questions. His religious drawings from jail are simply incredible, when you consider they give him lined paper and cheap pencils to work with. They were good enough for the Hong Kong Police to ban them from being sent out, as they were seen as drawing attention to him. In his time of struggle Jimmy is growing in his faith, not questioning it. 

I often wonder how people going through tough times overcome their own questioning of their faith. It’s a fair thought to ask if God has forsaken you when you’re in a prison cell. Jimmy Lai has provided me a new quandary: How does one, as has Jimmy, not only find strength in our faith while being oppressed but grow in that faith, while the most powerfully oppressive totalitarian government on earth is trying to lock you away?


Mark Simon is the managing director of Lai Trust, Lai’s holding company. Simon has worked for Jimmy Lai since May 2001. He is a former senior executive of Next Digital, Lai’s media company that published Apple Daily.