From The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. In the weeks since China imposed a strict new security law on Hong Kong, dozens of people have been arrested there. Today, my colleague Austin Ramsey speaks to the most high profile figure arrested so far about his quest for freedom and the future of Hong Kong.
It's Thursday, September 3rd. In who exactly is Jimmy Lie to me Lie is a wealthy media tycoon in Hong Kong.
Jimmy Lai has lived the Hong Kong dream. He went from rags to riches.
He went from working at a Hong Kong sweatshop to founding a business empire that is now worth around one billion dollars.
He made his first fortune in clothing.
He's now a media ally, is the owner of Apple Deli, one of the most widely read newspapers in Hong Kong.
He's a man about town. He's politically active.
Mr. Lee is Hong Kong's most prominent pro-democracy campaigner. He's an outspoken critic of Beijing's policies in the territory.
Outspoken, unafraid, he has said, to cause trouble, to speak his mind and support his public.
And the story of how he became who he is is very much a story of Hong Kong. He reflects in many ways the promise of Hong Kong. And now what's happening to him today reflects some of the disappointments. Police in Hong Kong have arrested media mogul and democracy proponent Jimmy Lai, along with six other people under that controversial new national security law after the national security law was passed.
Jimmy Lai was arrested. And after he was held for about a day, he was released and out on bail and he agreed to talk to us.
So one morning, my colleague Tiffany Mae and I, I went and visited him at his house. I'm going to tell them that he's asking for it.
It's in the neighborhood of old colonial houses on the Korean peninsula. And by American standards, it's a large suburban house. But by Hong Kong standards, where people have a couple of hundred square feet to themselves, at most it's enormous.
And there's a gate we can go in now and a new Mercedes outside.
There are five cars parked here and we walk into his house parking lot into the living room with the grand piano, many oil paintings.
There's lots of art on the walls, stacks of books, fresh flowers, and we wait to meet him for breakfast.
You're saying that during the interview we could wear the you and so Jimmy comes in after his morning workout.
Have you notes that I just finished my exercise?
He's wearing sort of a multimillionaire casual with some gray sweatpants and a seersucker jacket and a white dress shirt. And so we sit down at a table sort of in an enclosed veranda next to his backyard just in case.
And we start talking.
Well, maybe if we can start, you know, wherever you just ask, yeah, that's cool. I'm sorry if I can't tell you why. OK, great, great.
And where does Jimmy Lee's story start? Where do you begin this conversation?
So, Jimmy, I was born in Canton. It's not known as Conejo in mainland China. He was born in 1948, just before the communist takeover of China in 1949. And this is a very wrenching and difficult period for for a lot of people, including Jimmy Lee's family. There's campaigns to take land and property from the wealthy.
What did your family do in mainland China? My father was a shipping business. You know, my family were quite rich. That's why we became the enemy of the people. So, you know, the family was marginalized.
And by the time he's a young boy, there's a mass collectivization campaign called the Great Leap Forward, and it results in widespread starvation because that was a very difficult time in mainland China, because family, yeah, you have some food, but sometimes you're hungry.
You have to eat vegetable, rice or whatever and contributes to a famine in which tens of millions of people are believed to have died. And so while he lives in Canton, which is a comparatively a relatively well-off place in China, it's still quite difficult for him and his family. Well, I. I work as a boy luggage carrier in the railway station in Canton.
He told us that he was working at a railway station as a porter, and that's where he sort of first got the inspiration to go to Hong Kong. So I had access to people who came from Hong Kong, those guys I carried the package for. But one thing, I carry a package for a guy who was fighting a bar of chocolate, and he gave me a tip and he gave the chocolate to me also that he ate almost half of it.
And I was shy. You I turned around and I said, well, what's this chocolate? I said, Where are you from? Hong Kong. I said, Hong Kong must be heaven. And so he tried it and he was amazed. And at that moment, he said, I have to get to this place.
So for this poor young man, wherever that chocolate came from, he wanted to be. That's right.
And it becomes clear in talking to him that food is a very big consideration. I mean, this is a period of starvation in China.
Then I told my mother I have to go. My mother said, you know, you go to Hong Kong and she's like going to the moon. I would never see you again. It is very dangerous.
And his parents are reluctant to allow him to go. He's quite young. He's 12. But he tells us that his mother also realized that there was a real risk of him starting my mom to actually allow me to go just because, you know, you stay here with you, you would die from family. And I left and snuck under the fishing boats from Macao to Hong Kong and Macao. He makes his way onto a fishing boat and he smuggled by a fishing boat into Hong Kong.
And the same night I arrive, I was taken to a factory as a boy worker. The factory manager told those other kids to take me in the morning to breakfast. And the first time I saw so much food, it's the first time I realized food is actually freedom when you have a choice with food. I was so emotional about food that when the food was safe and I ate the first bite, I stood up to eat it. I don't know why, you know, it's just like speaking respect to food and there was poor, but I never felt I was poor because I was so hopeful that one day I will I will be rich.
That's just the beginning.
And so what does he do with this newfound sense of freedom in this land where there's finally enough food? What happens next?
Well, he proves to be a very capable worker in this clothing factory. He works his way up to the factory.
I was not even 21. I was made a general manager of a factory of 300 people. And what did the factory make?
The sweaters? And I stopped work. And with luck, I was able to perform and make a profit that they haven't made in a couple of years. One year he uses his bonus money to invest and buy his own factory. And so within a few years, he's running his own factory.
That's very impressive for a man in his early 20s. Yeah, yeah.
It's quite impressive in many ways. It's a very Hong Kong story. It's an opportunity that he just would not have been afforded had he stayed in mainland China.
So what happens to this factory that he buys? It does well.
I was working as a manufacturer for t shirts. We are producing a lot for Polo, Ralph Lauren and some other brand names, and he eventually creates his own clothing company.
When it was in New York, I was trying to name my retailing shop.
He tells us this kind of wild story of how he came up with the name for his new company. And one day I met somebody I knew in a importing company. The guy gave me a few cookies. He's on a sales trip to New York and he's unwittingly given a pot cookie.
I was totally hi.
I did know that the cookie they could marry Warner, so I just felt so munchy.
And I went into a piece of peace Quincoces munchies with a bunch of pizza and then later on finds a napkin in his pocket from this place.
And it's called Giordano's Jordano. Wow. This is very good Italianate. And I was stupid enough to think that if I use Italian name, people would think that the goose from Italy, if he takes that name, thinking that he will get his Hong Kong clothing company a sort of a European flair. And Giordano becomes a success and it sort of becomes the gap of Hong Kong and beyond Hong Kong, they open up in China and other parts of Asia and Jimmy Lai is on his way comes a multimillionaire.
So within a very short span, this child of mainland China who used to carry the bags of rich men on their way to Hong Kong is now himself a massive Hong Kong success story. So how does he get from retail into media?
So it starts with Chinese politics. This is the 1980s was a period of opening up in China and people in mainland China began pushing for even more. And so there is a protest movement in nineteen eighty nine in Beijing and other large Chinese cities where students and workers come together and demonstrate and try and demand greater say in their government. And this is something that's followed very closely in Hong Kong. By this point, it's clear that Hong Kong will return to Chinese control.
And so people in Hong Kong are very invested in the idea of China becoming a democracy. Right. And Jimmy Lai, he has this belief that China will open up, but that doesn't happen. China sends in the troops. And on June 4th, 1989, Chinese soldiers kill hundreds, possibly thousands of demonstrators in Beijing. And that is the end of the protest movement. And how does Jimmy Lai react to the news of that massacre? He still believes that China will become a democracy at a time when the Tiananmen massacre happened.
I thought that the way for China to go forward liberalization was irreversible. I was wrong. I was a dreamer. I'm still a dream. And he wants to do what he can to push it in that direction for somebody who has made enough money. I was 40 years old. You know, I made enough money for my life that OK, let's go into the media because I believe in the media by delivering information, you're actually delivering freedom.
He sees the way of doing that is through the media. And so as a child, we sell food as freedom. Now he sees information as freedom. And by being a publisher himself, he can deliver that. So his first publication is called Next Magazine. Can you tell us about the philosophy of your publications? You describe the inspiration to start them as the aftermath of Tiananmen and the crackdown and hopes to reform China. And it's a very high minded political idea.
But next, magazine and Apple Daily are famous for four gossip. So it seems like there's a kind of dictionary, a little bit of a contradiction there. What is the what is the underlying?
Underlying is pro freedom. At the same time, I'm a retailer. When I stop next magazine magazine was like, OK, if your financial magazine, your financial magazine, your entertainment costs that your boss just said, fuck it, you should have to do this. We're going to put it all together and just choose the best of each. And it became overnight success. My purpose is to sell and to deliver the message to as many people as possible.
And we have been very persistent in our democracy and freedom principle.
And people in Hong Kong talk about, you know, in those days, like waiting to get to the next issue of next magazine. And five years later, he starts Apple Daily, which is a daily newspaper. And it's a very similar sort of mix of gossip and celebrity and also hard hitting news and investigations and everything somebody might want to read, basically.
So how do these publications next, Apple Daily, how do they treat China?
So they're very critical of the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, Jimmy Lai gets into a lot of trouble over this. He has a column. And in this column, he insults Lee Pung, who's the Chinese premier and person generally believed to have ordered the troops into Beijing.
So I don't know what year was that? This may maybe a couple of years after the Tiananmen Square, he was saying something ridiculous, you know. So I wrote a letter, call him The Sum of Total.
You know, he calls him a turtle's egg with zero IQ.
I don't know that reference very well, but I imagine that's a local insult that hurts.
It's basically questioning both his intelligence and his parentage.
Huh? Then China essentially an order me to sell the stick into a damnable within five days or whatever. Otherwise, they would close the shop in Beijing.
There's a very quick reaction from the Chinese authorities and they begin closing Jordano shops in mainland China and he's forced to decide does he want to run a media empire or the clothing empire? And he decides to stick with media and he sells all of his interest in Giordano for a few hundred million dollars, and then he becomes strictly a media tycoon.
But I have to imagine that the message of that insult and the response from the Chinese government, which is to directly punish him and hurt his business, is very clear to Jimmy Lai, which is if you mess with the Chinese Communist Party, there will be repercussions.
Yes, that's right. And as China gets more powerful, the risk to Jimmy, like get bigger. We'll be right back. But you could use a snack right about now, how about a toasty grilled cheese sandwich? Just be warned, if you happen to achieve gooey, cheesy perfection, you may be inspired to upgrade your tiny, drab kitchen. Only you won't be able to do it alone. In this moment of newfound passion, the people of U.S. bank want to help.
No matter what you're cooking up there, dedicated to turning your new inspiration into your next pursuit. U.S. bank equal housing lender member, FDIC. So listen, how do these tensions start to play out once Jimmy Lai throws himself into this media empire and like you just said, China's power keeps growing?
Well, he becomes a very prominent and outspoken figure in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. He participates in protests and his paper is a big backer of large protest movements in Hong Kong in twenty fourteen. And also last year, he goes to the US and meets with the secretary of state to advocate for Hong Kong to become more democratic.
And how risky is this behavior? Because it does seem very provocative, very publicly provocative. Is there a sense that when you're a billionaire, you can do these kinds of things with a certain level of protection is definitely taking risks?
And he's arrested a few times for participation in illegal assemblies for an incident with a photographer from a Beijing newspaper. But the risks really escalate once the national security law comes into place.
And we've talked about this lot with you on the show. Austinite is written so broadly and so clearly in response to the protest movements of the past three years that it's pretty clear that the Chinese government and their allies in the Hong Kong government could pretty much find any reason to apply it to someone doing something they don't like. Yes, that's right.
And nobody really knows how far it could go. This national security law, I think, came as a big surprise. What was your reaction when you first heard about this? Oh, I couldn't believe it. I thought it was brief. But the more I heard about it, the more it's true. And I knew that that spelt the death knell for Hong Kong because the British government did not give us democracy, but it gave us the rule of law, private property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom assembly.
All this institution was the protection of freedom. And that's why we Hong Kong people are so rebellious against CCP when the threat of our freedom was to be taken away. And for Jimmy Lai, the Chinese authorities and Chinese state media have really identified him as one of the main targets under this law. Hmm. And sure enough, within a few weeks after the law is passed, he's arrested.
You're one of the first people in Hong Kong to be arrested under the national security law. There's a new department within the police specifically to handle this. So this is this is all very new. What was that like? It was like I was preparing for it and now the time has come. I just take it easy because I don't know what's going to happen. I just throw with it, throw it time over, but only worry that, you know, I asked my policeman, can I go back upstairs to say goodbye to my wife?
Because she is the only thing that I worry she has to really suffer more than I do. And that's the only thing I was going to say. He's escorted out of his mansion and then he's taken to the Apple daily headquarters.
And there's this just amazing scene of sort of a perp walk of Jimmy Lai through the newsroom.
And there are hundreds of police, more than 200 police officers show up at the Apple Daily NEWSROOM.
Reporters go there and they're live streaming the police raid on their headquarters. And editors are getting in arguments with police a lot.
And it's a really dramatic scene.
And it's quite shocking to see so many police just descend on this newsroom and so hear his two sons and a few executives and his organization are arrested under national security violations. But it's not made clear exactly what in the few weeks since the law went into effect he has done to violate this. Mm hmm. And how does he describe his time in jail? He says that while he was being held, he thought about. Whether he would do things differently, actually, I was thinking if I knew that I would end up like this and in prison, would I have changed the way I run my life?
And I realized that, no, I wouldn't because I never did anything before intentionally, just naturally. So it must be my character if he's my character is my destiny. So it was all a relief. And I think I need to go have a good weekend.
And besides that, at some point he was going to have this collision with the authorities and he's satisfied with the things that he's done, that the choices he's made have led up to this point.
Well, to that point, there's a line of thinking and it's kind of a Chinese centric line of thinking, but it's a line of thinking that the Communist Party hastened the imposition of this very strict security law because of all the protests and the attention that they garnered.
And to the degree that people like Jimmy Lee played a role in that movement, in supporting it and amplifying it, criticizing China so openly.
Does he worry that he had violated this law and its consequences faster than it might have happened if everybody, including Jimmy Lai, had acted differently? Did he miscalculate the Chinese response?
He does have criticisms of the movement. He argued for nonviolence, the violence and property destruction of the protests are things that is critical of, you know, when the kids first broke into Legislative Council elections.
This is too much when they first threw the firebomb. This is going to be very detrimental to the movement. And I was always telling those kids we can not be more violent people, has guns and tanks. If anything, we have this moral authority. This is the only power we have. But at the same time. But I can understand also why because of the violence, because they are so desperate, the beginning of the life and the end of it is easy for me to say what I say before them if they don't fight them, have the face of life with our freedom.
I don't know if the whole movement was more moderate with the naturalistically law come, I think the national security law or kind of like this will come eventually anyway. But it just comes to.
He says that the Chinese government would have arrived at this point one way or another, that these sort of restrictions on Hong Kong were. Inevitable and according to that logic, what would be the point of tiptoeing around any of this? What would be the point of acquiescing or delaying? It wouldn't gain much of anything.
That's right. And, you know, he's not a subtle guy in some ways. He probably relishes the conflict that comes with forcing the authorities here. Mm hmm.
I just believe that CCP definitely want to clamp down on the rebalance of the Hong Kong people because they didn't understand why Hong Kong people are so rebellious. They is then that we have a different value than those Chinese in China.
And you and Tiffany were obviously talking to him in his home, not in a prison. So how does he get out? And so he's released on bail.
You know, I don't I didn't even think that they would allow me bail. It was a surprise. You know, they don't send me to China. At least they will keep me in custody until trial. But now, after paying three hundred thousand cash on bail and two hundred thousand personal guarantee, I'm not even charged. I don't know what my my crime is. That's not mandatory for me there quite yet, although my passport was confiscated and that's it.
He's not allowed to leave Hong Kong. So there is a lot of uncertainty in terms of his future and also the future of his publications.
You know, I'm struck Austin, that story from the beginning. Is, as you said, this quest for freedom and a quest for freedom that very much resembles Hong Kong's quest for freedom, the acquisition of it, and then the loss of it. And he has tasted that freedom. But at this point, if we're being honest, it kind of feels like that battle is now ending and that he is on the losing side of it. So does he see it that way?
I don't I don't think he does. I asked him about this because it struck me that now he was at a point in his life that was very similar to the experiences of protest leaders from 1989, you know, from 89. And the Tiananmen experience occurred often for political activists in China. There's a choice that's offered. You can go the path of walkden and go to America. Yeah, some of those, like Wang Dan, spent some time in prison and then left and now live a life of freedom overseas.
Or you can go the path of a shop where you stay in China and end up in prison.
Yeah, and some of those, like Little Shop, where is the Nobel Peace Prize laureate spent time in prison and died in prison.
And so I asked Jimmy Lai if a choice like that is, I would choose the latter. He would go to prison. Yeah, yeah. That's the only way to end. Because it's just making it very expensive for them. If I stay, but it'd be very expensive, too, I mean, to spend the rest of potentially the rest of your life in a prison cell. That's a great cost as well for one person as opposed to to a country.
That's a big, good bargain. It's a very good bargain. It's a very quick buck, no. I choose to I choose the bargains, and he said that he would stay and fight and risk spending the rest of his life in a prison cell. That's a bargain that it sounds like he's willing to make, is somebody who's, you know, done very well for myself as an entrepreneur, that that seems like a that seems like a tough bargain to take, but depends on what you want in life.
If I was satisfied with being rich and a successful businessman. My life will be this. That's not the kind of. I just lucky to have so much money because I what I want to make it. You know, is just very lucky. You know, I think that my true nature is the future. Mr. Lai, thank you very much. Thank you. Nice to talk to your family as Tiffany are walking out.
I interviewed Jimmy Lee a few times over the past 15 or so years and occurs to me that this could potentially be the last time that I talk with him. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Thank you, Austin. We appreciate it. Thank you, Michael. We'll be right back. This podcast is supported by Kibbie, the streaming service with fresh original stories that unfold in minutes. Kubi has been nominated for 10 Emmy Awards, including the thriller Most Dangerous Game, starring Liam Hemsworth, the piercingly funny comedy Dommy, starring Anna Kendrick, the topical and intense drama Free Rashawn, starring Stefán, James and Laurence Fishburne and the shocking drama Survive with Sophie Turner.
Watch shows like You've Never Seen told in minutes. Download now for your free two week trial. Here's what else you need to know. The Times reports that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sent a letter asking states and cities to prepare for the distribution of a possible coronavirus vaccine as early as late October or early November. Such a quick timetable is not at all certain. But the letter has heightened concern among public health officials that the president is seeking to rush the distribution of a vaccine as part of his re-election strategy.
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