He’s been mocked for years in China’s state-controlled news media for being fat, which he isn’t, and denounced recently as a CIA agent, a “black hand” and a member of an US-directed “gang of four” supposedly responsible for orchestrating the Hong Kong protest movement that is now in its 12th week. He says he isn’t any of those, either.
This week the object of all that opprobrium, Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong media tycoon, rose in Chinese propaganda from the number three spot in the “gang of four” to its senior member.
That China has put much so much energy into demonising a 71-year-old man is a measure of Lai’s singular status as the one prominent businessman in Hong Kong who openly supports anti-government protests, routinely denounces the Communist Party leader Xi Jinping as a “dictator” and refuses to follow fellow tycoons in paying at least token obeisance to Beijing.
China’s relentless campaign of vilification against Lai took a particularly nasty turn last week when his name was purged from the genealogical records of his family across the border in southern China.
His relatives, according to a report in Ta Kung Pao, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper in Hong Kong that invariably refers to him as “fatty Lai”, deleted his name from a family tree going back 28 generations, declaring him a “traitor” to his ancestors and his country who is no longer part of the clan. In an interview over a light Chinese lunch of shrimp and chicken in a glassed-in veranda at his home, Lai said the same relatives used to visit him regularly and have for years received money that he sent to them, but “of course they are going to deny me now”.
The Chinese authorities, for all their talk about the primacy of family in Chinese culture, he added, frequently hound families to put pressure on critics. “They are very good at frightening people,” he said.
As the majority owner of Next Media Group, which publishes Next, a weekly magazine, and Apple Daily, a popular newspaper and website, Lai has provided a powerful, wide-reaching platform to the mostly young and leaderless protesters. Both also have separate editions published in Taiwan.
Apple Daily, once a lowbrow rag that ran prostitute reviews, has evolved into a more serious, though still rambunctious, journal of political and social news with a decidedly anti-government and anti-Beijing slant. It also publishes a weekly column by Lai that has cheered on the protesters.
His weekly, Next, which began as a print magazine but now has only a digital edition, writes a lot about celebrities and covers local tittle-tattle, but also provides unstinting support for the protests.
The Chinese Communist Party, which controls two newspapers in the city, has squeezed the revenue of both Lai’s publications by pressuring companies not to advertise. Not a single Hong Kong company now advertises in his newspaper, despite it being the second best selling daily in the city.
The flight of advertisers, he said, has meant a loss of print revenue of about $44 million a year. But the online version of the paper, now behind a partial paywall, earns money from subscriptions and foreign advertisers who are not worried about being blackballed by Beijing.
While all the other prominent tycoons in Hong Kong have stayed silent about the protests or issued statements filled with Communist-style jargon about the need to “resolutely stop the turmoil”, Lai has supported and joined the protesters. He marched last Sunday in a parade through the centre of Hong Kong that drew over a million.
“The establishment hates my guts. They ask, ‘Why don’t you just let us make money in peace?’ They think I’m a troublemaker,” he said, adding: “I am a troublemaker, but one with a good conscience.”
© 2019 The New York Times