Comment: Another sign that democracy is slipping away in Hong Kong

There aren’t many newspaper publishers left like Jimmy Lai. Not in Hong Kong, not anywhere.

Police dragged him through his Apple Daily newsroom in handcuffs Monday to make an example of him: If you dare to crusade for democratization, incarceration awaits.

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Such is the price of defiance.

The message could not have been clearer. Coming just days after Hong Kong cancelled elections, and mere weeks after Beijing imposed a draconian national security law, his arrest has stripped any last pretense of democracy or autonomy from this former British crown colony.

Lai is incarcerated but not cowed, just as the seven million people of Hong Kong are disenfranchised but unbowed. Prison, he mused, would be a good chance to catch up on his reading.

“I will have the opportunity to read books I haven’t read,” he announced with customary resolve as his arrest loomed.

This is the defiant Lai I came to know during my seven years in Hong Kong running the Toronto Star’s Asia Bureau. He enjoyed the company of foreign correspondents, inviting them for brunch in his sumptuous private garden or a cruise through the harbour on his splendid yacht.

The luxe was merely for show — a side show in status-conscious Hong Kong, a city swimming in affluence and drowning in privation. In truth, he sought out foreign outlets as a vehicle to get the message out that Hong Kong needed the world to keep watch, and keep faith — which is precisely why he provokes the wrath of the authorities today.

Gruff and blunt, disinclined to bluffs or bluster, he remains Hong Kong’s most atypical tycoon and unpredictable publisher.

He makes no pretence of being a public intellectual — unlike Martin Lee, that other aging stalwart of the democracy movement I came to know (both were arrested briefly in April) — because Lai leads from the heart and goes with his gut.

That makes him hard to stop, harder to shut up, and harder still to shut down. The authorities are stopping at nothing, arresting his children and staff while raiding the newsroom to ratchet up every pressure point.

In prison, he might read up on the history of humiliation and intimidation that marked the Cultural Revolution a half-century ago, when the likes of Lai were paraded in the streets with dunce caps so that spectators would stay in line. Monday’s police tactic of punishing a publisher with a “perp walk” in the precincts of his own newspaper is a perfect reprise of Maoist times on the mainland.

The arresting officers are little better than the Red Guards who once did the party’s bidding. They are Hong Kong’s thought police.

It is no accident that a newspaper publisher would be among the most brazen targets of the latest crackdown. The objective is no longer repressing protests, but suppressing thoughts and disrupting democracy.

Lai’s thoughts are not so easily ordered.

Where most of the erstwhile colony’s capitalist elite moves in lockstep with their Communist overlords, Lai is not cut from the same cloth.

His Giordano chain of clothing stores cut a swath through Hong Kong and the mainland with a customer focus that proved revolutionary in its staid time.

Copying the same formula, his upstart tabloid gave readers what they wanted — starting with salacious coverage of a secretive elite, progressing to spirited exposés on corrupt politicians, culminating with an unabashed crusade for democracy in one of the world’s most literate yet least liberated polities. He replicated the formula yet again in Taiwan — another safe space for a free Chinese press — where he could torment politicians with impunity.

Until he couldn’t. Lai escaped China at age 12 to escape dictatorship, only to find himself in its embrace all these years later at the age of 71 as Communist rule reasserts itself.

In the 1984 Sino-British Declaration, Beijing guaranteed 50 years of autonomy and democratization upon the 1997 handover, under the rubric of “One Country, Two Systems.”

Two weeks ago, Hong Kong announced a one-year delay in scheduled September legislative elections (with limited powers, it must be noted) — on the pretence of a COVID-19 crisis, but in reality to thwart the momentum built up by pro-democracy candidates.

Imagine if everyone else on the planet postponed democracy until further notice, pending production of a vaccine years from now. Chinese authorities seem more interested in inoculating Hong Kong from the democracy virus than protecting it from a pandemic.

Not even in Donald Trump’s America is there serious talk of rescheduling elections. Which is why a coalition of concerned countries — notably Canada, the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand — has condemned the latest developments while imposing restrictions on Hong Kong trade and consular links.

Canadians are especially seized of Hong Kong’s fate, given the hundreds of thousands of people who immigrated here after 1997. Equally, hundreds of thousands of Canadian citizens live as expatriates in Hong Kong, mindful of China’s growing ruthlessness — not least the ransoming of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, still imprisoned as retaliation for the Huawei affair.

No one expects Beijing to be deterred any time soon by foreign pressure, least of all Lai. But that doesn’t mean this maverick publisher is about to bend to local coercion, or that the voters of Hong Kong will ever be satisfied with anything less than the elections they have demanded on the streets for decades.

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