President Joe Biden just secured the release of U.S. citizen Brittney Griner from Russian prison. The deal he made was far from ideal, yet an American gaining their freedom back is always something to celebrate. But while the topic of political prisoners is top of mind, we shouldn’t forget about Hong Kong freedom fighter Jimmy Lai.
The 74-year-old journalist is currently awaiting trial on trumped-up charges in Communist China. Lai’s story serves as a profile in courage and a lesson in the importance of the freedoms we often take for granted here in America.
As Paul Gigot details for the Wall Street Journal, Lai founded the Hong Kong-based newspaper Apple Daily and Next Media in 1989 in the aftermath of the Chinese government’s horrific massacre of protesters at Tiananmen Square. Gigot explains:
“Jimmy used Apple Daily and Next Media to promote democracy in Hong Kong, and the autonomy that China had promised would last 50 years. He and others succeeded so well that millions of Hong Kongers, especially the young, began to organize and vote for democracy. But this was something the Communist Party in Beijing saw as a profound threat. So they passed a national security law that became the excuse to arrest Jimmy and others who had protested silently in the streets for freedom.”
Alongside other Apple Daily staff, Lai was arrested in August 2020 after the Chinese government cracked down on Hong Kong and ended its previous status as a semiautonomous free city. In a telling move, the authorities went so far as to destroy Lai’s media company and the paper, not just arrest its leadership.
But Lai’s arrest wasn’t inevitable. Perhaps the most haunting yet inspiring part of his story, as told by Gigot, is that Lai had the opportunity to flee Hong Kong before he was arrested. He chose to remain and face the perverse “justice” that awaited him rather than run from the forces working against democracy and freedom. That takes a level of bravery that’s difficult to comprehend.
What does any of this have to do with Americans?
Well, for one thing, Lai’s only hope of release seems to be some form of negotiation from the U.S. government. Given our support as a nation and government for the freedom cause in Hong Kong, the Biden administration should do whatever it can to help his cause. But more broadly, Lai’s story should remind us why a free press is so important.
It’s clear that the Chinese Communist Party is downright terrified of Lai. Why? Well, there is nothing — yes, nothing — dictators and tyrants hate more than the free flow of information because the truth can only be repressed when people are left in the dark.
So, the kind of freedom American journalists enjoy is not to be taken for granted. (Oh, and journalists should stop acting like criticism or mean words are attacks on press freedom. Just ask Lai what an actual attack on the free press looks like.)
In a time when major political figures such as former President Donald Trump have called to “open up libel laws” to make it easier to punish media coverage they dislike, this is a lesson Americans seem in danger of forgetting.
Yes, media coverage is often biased and sometimes outright false. But we litigate the truth in an open market of ideas, and better that than an America where the government can treat its citizens like the CCP has treated Lai and other Hong Kong democracy activists.