Skip to main content
explainer

Millionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai poses during an interview with AFP at the Next Digital offices in Hong Kong on June 16, 2020.ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Freedom of speech will be put to the test later this month as the high-profile trial of Jimmy Lai, founder of the popular and now-defunct Chinese-language newspaper Apple Daily, begins in Hong Kong.

The media tycoon will be on trial for allegedly violating Hong Kong’s national-security law, which critics say is designed to quash dissent. The trial was supposed to start on Dec. 1. But it was postponed after Hong Kong’s leader asked China to effectively block Mr. Lai from hiring a British defence lawyer to represent him in court. It has now been adjourned to Dec. 13.

The highly anticipated case, which has seen a global campaign launched in solidarity with Mr. Lai and journalists from the now-shuttered newspaper, has been wrought with controversy since his arrest in 2020. It will also be the first criminal trial in Hong Kong for the offence of colluding with foreign forces.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who is Jimmy Lai?

Mr. Lai, 74, actively participated in mass protests prior to his imprisonment, attending anti-government riots in Hong Kong in 2019 and meeting with then-U. S. vice-president Mike Pence and then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo to discuss legislation that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. The Fugitive Offenders amendment bill on extradition has since been withdrawn.

The protest movement, which eventually was snuffed out, lacked any clear leader, but Mr. Lai’s high profile made him a target of the authorities.

The founder of Apple Daily, which rose to top-selling popularity for its investigative reporting and criticism of the government and strong prodemocracy stand, launched the newspaper in 1995. It became the first in China to use short animated films online to accompany news reports. The Apple Daily expanded into Taiwan in 2003.

Why is he on trial?

Mr. Lai was arrested in August, 2020 and was charged in December, 2020 by Hong Kong’s national-security police. He was denied bail by the city’s top court and kept in jail for almost two years.

He is fighting charges of endangering national security – two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and one charge of collusion under the national-security law, which criminalizes secession, subversion and terrorism, and makes it illegal to “collude” with foreign forces to call for sanctions. Three of his companies connected to Apple Daily were also charged with colluding with foreign forces.

Six months after he was charged, Apple Daily was shut down in June, 2021, allegedly for violating the national-security law.

If convicted, Mr. Lai faces the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Jailed Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai sentenced to 14 months for illegal assembly

How an Ontario hotel chain got dragged into a Hong Kong national security case

Regarding the trial, it is still unclear whether Mr. Lai’s lawyer, British veteran barrister Timothy Owen, will be allowed to represent him. Despite Mr. Lai’s choice being approved by a city court, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, John Lee, announced his intent on Monday to ask Beijing to rule on whether to let foreign lawyers be involved in national-security cases.

If Beijing intervenes, that would mark the sixth time that the Communist-ruled government has stepped in despite its promise to respect Hong Kong’s judicial independence and civil liberties for at least 50 years after China took over from Britain in 1997.

Other legal troubles facing Mr. Lai

Mr. Lai was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on Saturday for fraud related to subletting office space to a company in violation of its lease with a government-owned entity. He pleaded not guilty and was convicted in October of 2022.

Mr. Lai, a British citizen, is already serving prison sentences for his role in unauthorized assemblies during the 2019 anti-government protests, as well as an unauthorized vigil in 2020 for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

He was first sentenced to 14 months in prison in April, 2021. One month later, he was sentenced to another 14 months and ordered to serve two concurrent sentences amounting to at least 20 months in prison for unauthorized assembly during the prodemocracy protests in 2019.

Mr. Lai and seven other Hong Kong prodemocracy activists were sentenced to as many as 14 months in prison in December of 2021 for their roles in a banned vigil held for the victims of Tiananmen.

His supporters have said he is being targeted for his journalism and have called for the charges against him to be dropped.

With reports from the Associated Press and James Griffiths.