A close confidant of the jailed Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai has called on Britain to do more to secure the 75-year-old’s release.
Lai, a prominent businessman and founder of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper, has been detained since December 2020. He has been convicted of fraud and faces more serious charges of foreign collusion under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law.
Mark Clifford, the former director of Apple Daily’s parent company, said: “The British government must make a choice regarding whether it will do more to support the immediate release of British citizen Jimmy Lai”.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Clifford, president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, a campaign group, said Hong Kong was the “canary in the coalmine” for China’s ambitions overseas.
As well as not doing enough to support Lai, Clifford said “the British government doesn’t seem to be doing a lot to protect” Hong Kong activists who have fled to the UK, many of them under the British national (overseas) scheme. More than 105,000 Hongkongers have come to the UK under the scheme, the biggest wave of non-EU migrants since the Windrush generation.
But Clifford said many of them had experienced “harassment or bullying, whether it’s online or offline” from agents of the Chinese Communist party since arriving in the UK.
In October, a pro-democracy protester from Hong Kong was assaulted by several men outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester. The consul general and five other diplomats subsequently returned to China.
Clifford was in London to speak to the all party parliamentary group on Hong Kong, along with Lai’s international lawyer, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, and other figures concerned with media freedom in Hong Kong. Gallagher condemned the UK government’s “radio silence” on Lai’s case, saying Lai could “die behind bars”.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Office pointed to the UK’s statement at the UN on Wednesday: “In Hong Kong, rights and freedoms have been further eroded by the continued use of the national security law in deliberate attempts to target pro-democracy figures, journalists and businessmen and women, including Jimmy Lai and the 47 pro-democracy advocates.”
Since the 2019-20 pro-democracy protests were crushed, Hongkongers have faced an uphill battle to stay in the international spotlight.
The mass trial of pro-democracy advocates, known as the Hong Kong 47, began on 6 February, but media coverage of the hearings have been limited. Local media reported that people were being paid to queue up outside the court, apparently to occupy all the public seats.
Journalists are also worried about breaking the vaguely worded national security law. “People don’t quite realise the intensity of the media restrictions,” Clifford said.
Gallagher likened the situation in the former British colony to that of other repressive regimes: “Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran – to that list I would add Hong Kong”.