Jimmy Lai's 1,000 days in Hong Kong jail: When will Rishi Sunak stand up for unjustly detained British citizen and democracy? – Tim Loughton MP, Jim Shannon MP and Mark L Clifford

The Prime Minister has not yet spoken the name of Jimmy Lai, founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, in public

If you rewound the clock in Hong Kong back five years to 2018, business and life would have been going on as usual in one of the world’s most dynamic cities – glistening skyscrapers, dim sum on the streets, and Victoria Harbour bustling with people. It was a city where freedom flourished. Hong Kong citizens commemorated the Tiananmen Square Massacre and routinely demonstrated against he human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party.

It was a place where British citizen Jimmy Lai’s pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was a leading newspaper. Little did anyone know that the Asian financial hub would take a turn in the summer of 2019 as Hong Kong’s police beat and tear-gassed protesters fighting for democracy and against a law that would allow them to be sent to mainland China’s gulag. Lai was one among two million people who peacefully protested in the streets.

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The next year, in mid-2020, Beijing imposed the National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong. It criminalises secession – breaking away from China; subversion – undermining the authority of the Chinese government; terrorism – using violence against others; and collusion with foreign forces. This vague and sweeping law has been used, broadly and arbitrarily, to target, arrest, and imprison pro-democracy activists. It makes dissent a crime.

Lai is one of those caught up in its net. The 75-year-old British citizen, a husband, father, and businessman, has been relentlessly pursued by the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities since the imposition of the NSL. In August 2020, the authorities raided the offices of Apple Daily and arrested him. Lai was released on bail but was then taken back into custody in December 2020 on trumped-up fraud charges involving Apple Daily’s building lease. After being granted bail and spending Christmas at home, Lai’s bail decision was overruled by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal on 31 December 2020. After repeated delays, Lai’s NSL trial is now expected to begin on December 18. Today marks his 1,000th day in prison.

What matters is what happens next. British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly publicly acknowledged the case of Jimmy Lai at the United Nations in February 2023 and he reportedly raised Jimmy’s case with Chinese officials during his recent visit to Beijing. Last week, Cleverly’s six-monthly report on Hong Kong mentioned Lai 11 times and claimed: “[His] prosecution is highly politicised and I raised his case in Beijing last month. We continue to press for consular access. The international community is paying close attention to his case and many others. We urge the Hong Kong authorities to uphold the rule of law and to comply with international norms and standards.”

Yet how is the British government holding the Hong Kong authorities to account for their treatment of Lai and more than 1,400 other political prisoners in what was a once-thriving international financial district? A British citizen remains behind bars in a city that continues to be destroyed by the Chinese Communist Party. Cleverly and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – who has yet to publicly say Jimmy Lai’s name – should call for his immediate and unconditional release from prison.

On Lai’s 1000th day in prison, Cleverly and Sunak should also reaffirm his British citizenship. China adopts a racial identity policy, claiming that someone born Chinese is forever Chinese. Lai has only one passport. It is British. He has never had a Chinese travel document.

Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, pictured in June 2020. He was arrested two months later over his support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests (Picture: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, pictured in June 2020. He was arrested two months later over his support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests (Picture: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, pictured in June 2020. He was arrested two months later over his support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests (Picture: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

The UK Government has a responsibility to Lai as a British citizen. The fact that he is in jail for upholding British ideals makes this need even more pressing. The UK Government must take what it means to be a British citizen seriously, and prioritise democratic values.

This past week, Lai’s son Sebastien Lai campaigned for the release of his father and met many supportive British parliamentarians of all parties. Yet at the same time as Sebastien was pushing for his father’s release in the halls of the Westminster parliament, the UK Government appointed Lewis Neal as His Majesty’s Trade Commissioner for China and Hong Kong.

Sebastien wrote a letter to Kemi Badenoch, the British Secretary of State for Business and Trade, in response, underscoring the conflicting messages being sent by the UK Government on Hong Kong, where business is not as usual. Sebastien also asked to meet with Badenoch to share the plight of his father with his and his father’s government representatives. Sebastien has yet to receive a reply from Badenoch or Cleverly.

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On Jimmy’s 1,000th day in prison, will either of these two Cabinet Secretaries agree to meet with his son, Sebastien? Will the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary publicly urge the Hong Kong government to immediately and unconditionally release him, affirming his British citizenship?

Amid scandals of spies in the British parliament, conflicting attitudes towards the Chinese Communist Party’s Confucius Institutes that continue to infiltrate universities in the UK, and Beijing’s appalling human rights violations in Hong Kong – as well as Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, and beyond – the UK Government must not let China have the final say on the fate of a British citizen being held hostage, simply for fighting for the British ideals of freedom and free speech.

Tim Loughton is the Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, Jim Shannon is the Democratic Unionist Party MP for Strangford, and Mark L Clifford is the president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation



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