A Hong Kong ‘Troublemaker’ With a Clean Conscience

HONG KONG — He has been mocked for years in China’s state-controlled news media for being fat, which he isn’t, and denounced more recently as a C.I.A. agent, a “black hand” and a member of an American-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 things, 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 demonizing a 71-year-old man is a measure of Mr. Lai’s singular status as the one prominent businessman in Hong Kong who openly supports antigovernment 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 antigovernment and anti-Beijing slant. It also publishes a weekly column by Mr. Lai that has cheered on the protesters.

ImageMr. Lai fled to Hong Kong from Guangdong Province as a boy, and ran a successful chain of clothing stores before switching to media.
CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

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 publications by pressuring companies not to advertise. Not a single major company now advertises in Mr. Lai’s newspaper, despite it being the second best selling publication 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,” Mr. Lai has not only supported the protesters but joined them. He marched last Sunday in a mass parade through the center of Hong Kong that drew over a million people.

“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.”

He has caused further anger by cheering on President Trump, whom he describes as “the only one who plays hardball with China. This is the only thing that China understands.”

This is a common view, too, among Chinese dissidents on the mainland, who see Mr. Trump, despite his describing Mr. Xi as “my good friend,” as the first United States leader to see China clearly since President Nixon visited Beijing in 1972 and began what they see as decades of weak-kneed policy.

Mr. Lai’s keen interest in China, however, is one area in which his views diverge sharply from those of Hong Kong’s mostly youthful protesters, who often want nothing to do with the country that took back control of their city from British colonial rule in 1997.

“I always feel Chinese because I belong to the older generation,” he said. Each year he takes part in a candlelight vigil held on June 4 to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Most Hong Kong student groups view Hong Kong as a place apart from China, and stay away from the event.

Born across the border in Canton, the capital of Guangdong, Mr. Lai fled to Hong Kong in a boat as a boy and, until the Tiananmen killings, was a typical success story in the then British-ruled city. He stayed away from politics and diligently worked his way up from lowly jobs as a knitter and clerk to become the main owner of Giordano, a successful chain of clothing stores.

The 1989 Tiananmen bloodshed, he said, made him start thinking about politics and led to his setting up Next Magazine the following year, a move that quickly hurt his clothing business once he started writing insulting articles about leaders in Beijing, particularly China’s then prime minister, Li Peng, widely known as the “Butcher of Beijing,” who died last month at 90.

CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

“I had always hoped that China was changing and would become a democracy. I was wrong. It was wishful thinking,” he said.

In retaliation, the Chinese authorities began closing his Giordano clothing stores on the mainland, his chain’s fastest growing market. He realized that he had to either sell up or mind his tongue. He sold everything but his media holdings for nearly $320 million.

That experience, he said, has helped him understand why so many of his fellow tycoons toe Beijing’s line. “As a businessman, you can’t confront the regime,” he said.

Many business people, he says, do not believe their own statements against the protesters, but feel they have no choice but to show support for the Hong Kong government and Beijing.

This, he said, is understandable but also a mistake because China’s leaders “know that once they cow you, they can always cow you. Once they have you in their pocket they will always squeeze you.”

For Mr. Lai, unlike the other tycoons, the protests are potentially a commercial boon. Apple Daily has been running advertisements that try to lure new digital subscribers by promising them that of every 3 Hong Kong dollars (about 40 cents) they pay for a daily subscription, it will donate 1 Hong Kong dollar to the protest movement.

Mr. Lai has become such a bogeyman for China’s propaganda machine that one newspaper has a photographer and video cameraman on permanent duty on the street outside his colonial-era house on the Kowloon Peninsula to record all his visitors — and, it apparently hopes, find evidence of secret contacts with American intelligence.

A group of mysterious “patriots” also gather regularly outside his front gate, arriving together in a white minibus to wave banners denouncing Mr. Lai, a father of six, as an “American running dog” and “the black financier supporting the turmoil.” He has given modest donations but his main support has been the unswervingly favorable coverage provided by his media outlets.

To put pressure on him through his children, one pro-Beijing newspaper recently published the name and address of a Hong Kong restaurant owned by an older son and urged a boycott. Business increased.

Mr. Lai said he stopped paying attention long ago to all the insults, though he doesn’t enjoy being disturbed by raucous renditions of the Chinese national anthem on his doorstep. The abuse has scared off some old friends, but, he said, “If you don’t fight, you get frightened. I have always been a fighter.”

Photographed whenever he leaves his home and often followed, Mr. Lai shrugged off the harassment as an annoyance that he has grown used to. “I don’t go out much.”

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