VATICAN CITY — Concerns continue to deepen over a crackdown on rights and freedoms in Hong Kong as Catholic media tycoon Jimmy Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison today for taking part in unauthorized assemblies during mass pro-democracy protests in the former British colony.
The 73-year-old founder of Apple Daily media group, Lai was one of nine pro-democracy activists sentenced for participating in two demonstrations on Aug. 18 and Aug. 31 in 2019.
He was sentenced to 15 months in prison for the first demonstration, reduced by three months in mitigation, and an eight-month sentence for the second, of which he will be required to serve two months.
But he also faces two additional charges which could prolong his time in jail. Prosecutors said Friday these involve conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and conspiracy to obstruct the course of justice, according to Reuters.
Martin Lee, 82, also a practicing Catholic and known as Hong Kong’s “father of democracy” movement, was given an 11-month suspended sentence. The other seven pro-democracy activists, including Margaret Ng, a well-known Hong Kong barrister and politician, received sentences ranging from one-year suspended sentences to 18 months in prison.
“We continue to see selective prosecution and now selective sentencing in Hong Kong,” said Mark Simon, a deputy to Lai for many years and senior executive at Next Media Group, part of Lai’s media network. “There’s no rhyme or reason to the prosecutions.”
Simon told the Register April 16 that the suspended sentences “essentially take these major public figures out of circulation, so what you’ve got are political charges, a political trial and political sentences.”
The Catholic human rights advocate Lord David Alton, who knows Lai, Lee and Ng personally, called them “remarkable and courageous people – lifelong advocates for human rights, democracy, an independent judiciary and the rule of law.
“Today’s custodial sentences make a mockery of justice and are reminiscent of medieval Star Chambers and Stalinist show trials,” he told the Register. “These are exemplary and fine men and women who have risked their own freedom to stand for the fundamental liberties of the people of Hong Kong.”
The pro-democracy protests in 2019 that led to the activists’ convictions came in response to Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms that had been promised to the island upon its return from Britain to Chinese rule in 1997.
Since the protests, Beijing has increased its authoritarian grip on the special administrative region, imposing a sweeping national security law last June that critics said undermined the former colony’s autonomy and which threatened to result in life sentences for anyone committing what the authorities view as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.
In the days preceding the trial, Lai sent a handwritten letter to his colleagues from prison where he was being held in custody, saying: “It is a journalist’s responsibility to uphold justice” and that it is “precisely this that we need to love and cherish ourselves. The era is falling apart before us, and it is time for us to stand tall.”
Religious Freedom Concerns
Simon stressed that Lai “practices his faith daily” and “really does understand he’s part of God’s plan for him.” He said that the businessman misses his family but added, “I’ve known him and worked closely with him for 22 years, and he’s at peace with his God right now.”
Now concerns are growing that religious freedom, particularly for Catholics, may be in Beijing’s crosshairs next as it seeks an increasingly authoritarian grip on the territory to match that already present in mainland China.
“Much is at stake for religious freedom since China — now a world superpower that is actively extinguishing Hong Kong’s sovereignty — is at war with Chinese Christianity and other religions,” said Nina Shea, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
In his peaceful pro-democracy protest, Shea said that Lai is “both consciously defending religious freedom and upholding human dignity, in accordance with Catholic doctrine,” and added that in that sense, “he is what Catholic tradition calls a ‘martyr-confessor,’ a person willing to suffer imprisonment and deprivation for his Catholic beliefs.”
He joins the ranks of great Eastern European democracy heroes, such as Lech Walesa who resisted communism in Poland and Cardinal Józef Mindszenty who faced down the communists in Hungary, Shea added.
Benedict Rogers, founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, an advocacy group, noted that “as freedom itself is dismantled in Hong Kong, religious freedom is increasingly impacted.”
He told the Register April 16 that the effect on Catholics in Hong Kong “is already clear,” and noted that “many of the most prominent pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong are Catholics.”
Along with Lai and Lee, they include lawyer Albert Ho who received a one-year suspended sentence on Friday. Another prominent activist is Agnes Chow, 24, who has a large following on social media. “Many of them have been prosecuted, convicted and jailed for their peaceful pro-democracy activities,” Rogers noted.
Prayer Campaign Quashed
Rogers said that “anything remotely connected to political expression is now severely restricted, including in religious contexts” and although restrictions on religious freedom in Hong Kong “have not yet reached the level of mainland China, and there is still freedom of worship,” the signs are concerning.
The Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, he pointed out, is instructing clergy to be careful in their homilies, and Catholic schools there are “now subject to Chinese Communist Party propaganda, especially in regard to the national security law.” The diocese, Rogers said, “even effectively banned a prayer campaign planned by lay Catholics last year, to pray for Hong Kong.”
Lord Alton said throughout China, the Chinese Communist Party “has created Potemkin churches — with a skin-deep religious façade but wholly owned by the Communist Party — and they will be determined to do the same in Hong Kong too. This is what Cardinal Joseph Zen has prophesied and warned of for years — and he has been scandalously ignored.”
In contrast to examples of Christian heroism in the face of totalitarian oppression, Shea said there is “no indication” that Lai has “papal solidarity and prayerful support.” She said the Vatican’s silence on China and Hong Kong at this “great moral juncture in world history is bewildering.”
“Moreover,” Shea added, the Vatican’s renewed landmark agreement with China on the appointment of Catholic bishops, “celebrated in Rome just six months ago, gives moral cover to atheistic Chinese Communist Party tyranny.”
Simon said Lai is “hugely problematic for the Vatican” given his openly critical stance towards the Chinese authorities, in contrast to the Vatican’s silent and accommodative approach that is widely seen as erroneous.
He added that Lai is no fan of the Beijing-Holy See agreement.
“He sees it as the Vatican basically endorsing brutality,” Simon observed. “By not saying anything, they’re continually letting bad things happen.”