What Jimmy Lai will tell us

“He makes the money, and he uses the money to support the anti-establishment movement, and that creates more noise, and sells more papers. That’s the game he’s playing,” said Mr. Tien.

Textiles scion and pro-establishment politician Michael Tien summarizes pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai’s business model: capitalizing on public demand for news and comment critical of the government. It is hard to say what Tien sees wrong with this. Is he criticizing the public for not wanting to pay money for pro-Beijing media product? Or is he denouncing the free-enterprise concept of making a profit by successfully competing in the market? Or perhaps he doesn’t mind either of these, but disapproves of donations to political causes – or at least particular ones.

Most other media groups in Hong Kong are now controlled by tycoons eager to appease the Chinese government – as any of us would be if much of our family wealth was invested in the high-growth-but-vindictive-government Mainland. And traditional newspapers have a hard enough time competing with the Internet without having to serve owners’ needs to shoe-shine the Chinese Communist Party. A 2013 Bloomberg story noted that since Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok bought the South China Morning Post in 1993, the share price had declined 69% and the paper had been through 11 editors in 19 years. There must be cheaper, and less headache-inducing, ways to pay tribute to the emperor, but unlike Lai the loyalists don’t seem to have a choice.

As the New York Times story suggests, the fate of Jimmy Lai is a pointer for how Hong Kong will go – not just as a media hub, but as a free JimmyLai-jan15community. Last night there were some sort of fire-bomb attacks on Lai’s Next Media offices and home, and some kerfuffle in Tsimshatsui leaving copies of Apple Daily strewn around. It looks pretty amateurish, but it comes on top of pressure on conglomerates not to advertise in Lai’s publications, major hacking attacks and on-line theft of company documents (with no police investigation showing any apparent progress), mob-sieges of the company headquarters, lame smears about Lai’s supposed CIA/US ties, a high profile anti-corruption raid (with nothing to show), and Lai’s possible imminent arrest as ‘instigator’ or whatever of Occupy Central protests.

Taking each incident separately, you have a few pro-Beijing fanatics going too far or law enforcers simply doing their job; taken together, you clearly have a pattern: Beijing wants to bring Lai and Next Media down. Trumped-up ‘instigation’ charges aside, Lai is guilty of no more than making money through trashy, populist, tabloid, pro-democracy muckraking and donating to pro-democracy causes. Chinese government forces can destroy him and the business only through extra-legal means – hiring goons or subverting police or courts. Local officials will have to play along.

The whole 1997/handover project was always going to be a test of whether the Chinese Communist Party could handle a pluralist society. Over the years, quiet optimism gave way to occasional nagging doubts. The signs now are that the Leninist system really is incapable of co-existing with even one insulated and semi-detached city that is not under tight control. Jimmy Lai is a thick-skinned and hefty target, so his fate will tell us much about how far China can or will go.

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15 Responses to What Jimmy Lai will tell us

  1. Cassowary says:

    Everybody in the Chinese political hierarchy must be falling over themselves to prove their loyalty to Xi Jinping right now. They’re all paranoid. They don’t know whose head is (possibly literally) going to roll next, and must think that slavish butt-kissing is the only thing that can save them. This means racking up “wins” against the Forces of Western Imperialism. Winning means having something to report to one’s superiors. X number of arms twisted; Y number of sternly worded propaganda pieces issued; Z acts of thuggery committed. It all probably goes into a spreadsheet somewhere.

    Results might be besides the point. Sure, it might piss off Hong Kongers even more and make things worse, but that can be blamed on the CIA. At least this way, nobody can be accused of being anything other than totally loyal.

  2. David says:

    I do fear for his safety. One has to be brave to stand up to the thuggish Chinese government.

  3. Gooddog says:

    Stay strong Jimmy!

  4. Joe Blow says:

    A message to the uncles and aunties of the DAB and New People’s Party: an eye for an eye. Mind your back.

  5. Scotty Dotty says:

    In Hong Kong Jimmy’s the only media mogul worth a cent.

  6. PD says:

    I thought you thought Michael Tien was intelligent, or at least more so than his brother?

    Jimmy Lai deserves all our support for his brave championing of independent thinking. But I can’t see him surviving longer than a year or two.

  7. Stephen says:

    After suffering through three pro-tycoon fawning puff pieces in this morning’s consistently dreadful Sub Standard it is my hope that Chinese Readers do not suffer the same.

    As you rightly point out there does seem to be a “pattern” against Jimmy Lai and the Apple Daily. He’s faced off and lost with the CCP before with Giordano in China and the Tycoons in Hong Kong with his online Supermarket. Smartly he’s stepped down and as I understand the Apple Daily remains the most popular newspaper in Hong Kong – “Mrs. Stephen” swears by it.

    The CCP’s answer to OC is not going to be pretty …

  8. Dan the Man says:

    Nothing odd about this. Remember the Kevin Lau attack? Back then the HK government would pretend to care but now they don’t even try. In all likelihood the CCP also ordered the attack on Kevin Lau just like it’s now attacking Jimmy Lai.

  9. Rory says:

    Je suis Jimmy!

  10. Nic says:

    Lol Mike is jealous. He’d love to have that sort of fame. I’m serious.

  11. reductio says:


    “I am Spartacus!”

    (or if you are one of our esteemed elite: “He’s Spartacus. Not me. NO way. That guy. He is so TOTALLY Spartacus. Although it might have construed by the ignorant that I was once Spartacus I’d just like to say that I am most definitely not him. My lawyers will be taking action against anyone who says I am Spartacus. “)

  12. Joe Blow says:

    I have a feeling that “Asia’s Finest” somehow won’t be able to find even a tiny single clue to the fire bombings of last nite.

    And after having video-taped almost each and every citizen in Hong Kong over the past 3 or 4 months, you wonder why “Asia’s Finest” were unable to video-tape the car license number of the vehicle that knocked down the under-cover cop last nite at 5 PM. Is it stupidity or just plain incompetence ?

    Answers on a postcard to: The Joe Blow Policy Institute (there is no prize).

  13. Cassowary says:

    It will be as usual. They will catch the lackeys and the mastermind will never be publicly identified. I’m sure that lost wages due to imprisonment is included in the Official Henchman Compensation Package. I wonder what the going rate is these days?

  14. Monkey Reborn says:


    “It all probably goes into a spreadsheet somewhere” … great line.

    As far as Mike Tien and the tycoons who have invested in the mainland – the problem isn’t having a business in China or working there. The issue is that they engaged in “scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” crony capitalism with the local governments and, in some cases, national governments. Of course in full knowledge and awareness of the nature of the beast (their families all left China be because of the CCP fer fuck sake), done in the fine old Hong Kong tradition of pursuing profit irrespective of damage to one’s personal integrity.

    When you dance with the devil, you pay with your soul.

  15. Chinese Netizen says:

    I’m sure there’s a super fast track lane at the border crossings for guys that just committed an act of terrorism (yes, that’s what it is) in HK and need a cooling down period in Guangdong before starting up all over again.

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