Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, who has been released on bail after his arrest Monday, said Thursday he has accepted imprisonment as his “destiny” and that the widespread support he has received proves his struggle for democracy is a worthy cause.
Lai, 71, was one of 10 people arrested Monday for violating the national security law imposed by China on July 1. Among them, two were his sons, four were senior executives at Lai’s Next Digital company, and three were activists, including 23-year-old Agnes Chow. Local news reports say he was released on bail and that $6.5 million of his assets have been frozen.
The arrest of Lai, a high-profile supporter of the pro-democracy movement, and the police raid on the Apple Daily newspaper owned by Next Digital this week have stoked widespread fears of the end of Hong Kong as a city where information and opinions are freely aired.
Speaking in public for the first time since his release, Lai said in an Apple Daily live link Thursday morning that he had his moments of doubt when he was handcuffed and struggled to sleep on the floor in custody.
“If I knew I would end up here, or eventually in prison, would I have changed myself?” he said has asked himself.
“[But] my character is my destiny. Once I accepted my destiny, all of a sudden, I felt the grace of God, the blessing of God, and I was totally relieved. And I left myself to my destiny and accepted it,” said Lai, a Catholic.
“It was such a wonderful feeling … culminating in such a situation. It was like God telling me, ‘Don’t fear, just do what you have to do, I’m with you,’” he said.
He said he was overwhelmed by the public support for him and his paper.
After Apple Daily’s office was raided by around 200 police officers, Next Digital’s share price more than doubled on Monday and rocketed five times again the next day to reach a six-year high.
The paper said it printed 550,000 copies of Tuesday's paper, compared with the usual run of around 70,000. People lined up in the early hours of Tuesday to buy the paper, which sold out across Hong Kong. Some bought multiple copies to leave on the streets for others.
Lai said he was filled with emotion when he was released, to be greeted by supporters, who were shouting for joy. He said the images of 200 police officers raiding the newsroom have angered many as it was “a violation of the people’s belief in the freedom of the speech.”
“It shows that people really support us, they give us so much comfort to be part of this community,” he said. “I was so touched. This has reaffirmed that whatever I've done wrong in the past, what I’m doing now is right. The message is: ‘Let’s go on!’”
Likening freedom to oxygen, he said, “The oxygen is getting thin, we’re all choking, [but] we’re still taking care of each other and we keep resisting and fighting for the rule of law and freedoms.”
Lai said he was relieved that he had not been taken to mainland China and the police who dealt with his case were Hong Kongers.
However, as Lai’s charges included subversion and collusion with a foreign country, which are new offenses under the new national security law, analysts have warned that under the law’s Clause 55 and 56, he risks being sent to China for trial, and could be given the maximum, life imprisonment.
After Lai’s arrest, the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office accused him and his paper of being a mastermind behind protests in Hong Kong, using his media platforms to “fabricate and spread rumors and to incite and support violence,” and of providing financial support for anti-China and pro-independence forces.
It called for “severe punishment” of those who “collude with foreign forces” and “act as their agents” to harm national security by “secession, subversion and infiltration.”
Lai said China does not understand that Hong Kong’s best assets are the rule of law and its civil liberties, and that they are the foundation of its success as an international financial center. He conceded, though, that Hong Kongers are helpless against such a powerful country.
“It’s a long fight, I agree. We cannot be radical, we cannot confront them face to face,” he said. “We are just eggs and they’re the wall. We have to be flexible and innovative, and patient but to achieve [our goal], that’s the way.”
Wiping away tears from time to time during the livestream, Lai said the international support meant “what we are doing is right.”
“I am in my 70s and there was never a time when I felt so moved and so happy, knowing that I’ve been doing the right thing. I’m near the end of my life, it’s a very precious feeling,” he said.