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What American Moguls Can Learn From Hong Kong Hero Jimmy Lai


How many millionaires and billionaires are willing to risk their lives and fortunes to fight for freedom and democracy? In Hong Kong, there is at least one. His name is Jimmy Lai. Lai’s life story and willingness to defend a free and open society that he has greatly benefited from should teach American millionaires and billionaires a valuable lesson.

Lai’s remarkable life has a humble beginning. In 1960, at the height of the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961), a man-made disaster created by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) ruinous policies, the impoverished and hunger-stricken Lai smuggled himself from mainland China into Hong Kong at the bottom of a fishing boat. He was only 12 years old.

At the time, Hong Kong was the land of opportunity for mainland Chinese refugees who sought to escape communism. Between the 1950s and 1970s, an estimated 2 million mainlanders escaped to Hong Kong. Some snuck in by boat, like Lai did; others by swimming the 2.5 miles from Shenzhen to Hong Kong, using the night as cover.

The journey is dangerous and tumultuous. Some sacrificed their lives on their journey to freedom, either by drowning or by gunshots from soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army.

From Textile Worker to Titan

Lai made it to Hong Kong safely. He quickly found a job at a textile factory, making 60 Hong Kong dollars ($7) a month. He later told a CNN reporter that when a coworker at the factory took him out for breakfast for the first time, the “relief from the anxiety of hunger was overwhelming.”

Lai worked his way up. In 1981, he founded a clothing line named Giordano, a name from a New York pizza parlor he had visited. Giordano was wildly successful, especially in mainland China, where for decades 1 billion citizens had only three shades of color to choose for any outfit: black, white, and blue. Mainlanders were hungry for the kind of clothing Giordano sold—garments with bright colors and made from high-quality material.

After watching Beijing’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Lai became an advocate for democracy and an outspoken critic of Beijing. Giordano printed T-shirts with slogans supporting protesters. Beijing retaliated by revoking Giordano’s business license in mainland China. Lai had to sell his stake in Giordano to protect the business.

From Clothes to Words

His next adventure focused on building the media empire Next Media (later changed to Next Digital). Lai created several magazines, then founded the Apple Daily newspaper in 1995.

Modeled after USA Today, Apple Daily attracted readers with big and colorful photos, populist opinions, scandalous gossip about the rich and powerful, as well as a subscription price of two Hong Kong dollars (25 cents). Apple Daily quickly became one of the most popular newspapers in Hong Kong, and its success helped Lai become a billionaire in 2008, with an estimated net worth of USD$1.2 billion.

In a city full of millionaires and billionaires, Lai stood out with his political activism. Other tycoons chose to either remain silent or openly support Beijing’s suppression of dissidents and human rights violations, to protect their lucrative business interests in mainland China. Lai continues to use Apple Daily to openly criticize Beijing, including calling out senior leaders of the Chinese Communist Party by name and exposing their corrupt lifestyles.

The paper also has given the most positive coverage of each of the city’s pro-democracy protests. Not only has Lai donated to pro-democracy movements, but he was often seen at the front line of many pro-democracy protests.

Standing for Freedom Makes You a Target

Lai’s outspokenness made him Beijing’s public enemy No.1 in Hong Kong. China’s state media labeled him a “traitor” and a “black hand” of hostile foreign forces, meaning the United States. Some even claim that Lai is on the CIA’s payroll.

All of Next Media’s publications are banned in mainland China. Beijing pressured Hong Kong businesses, especially those that have significant presence in mainland China, to refrain from purchasing advertisements from Apple Daily, to diminish its credibility and survivability. This plus the general trend of readers moving from traditional print to digital media has caused Lai’s media empire to suffer. Next Digital reported net losses for five years in a row. Forbes magazine dropped Lai from its billionaire list.

In addition to financial losses, Lai’s activism has put his freedom and safety at dire risk. In June 2013, a stolen car rammed into the front gate of Lai’s residence, and someone placed an ax and machete on his driveway. In November 2014, Lai was struck in the face during the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong. In January 2015, masked attackers tossed Molotov bombs at Lai’s home and Next Media’s headquarters.

Lai has also been arrested multiple times by the Hong Kong authorities for his involvement with pro-democracy protests. His most recent arrest took place on August 10. Lai, along with his two sons and several Next Media employees, were arrested for “foreign collusion” under the new security law imposed by Beijing. Hong Kong police also raided Apple Daily’s newsroom and confiscated materials from journalists. All those who were arrested, including Lai, were released a day later on bail.

He Believes In Something Bigger Than Himself

Lai was asked why he is willing to risk his life and fortune for Hong Kong’s democracy, and why he and fellow Hongkongers can’t just enjoy the prosperity the city offers, and forget about politics. Lai answered: “We are human beings. We have souls…If we don’t fight, we lose our freedom. When you lose freedom, you lose everything.”

Like Hong Kong, the United States is a fertile ground for self-made millionaires and billionaires. According to Forbes, as of 2018, close to 70 percent of the 400 richest people in the United States were self-made. Wouldn’t it be good for the world if they shared Lai’s convictions and were willing to defend the free markets and American values they have personally benefited so much from?

What about Jeff Bezos? His mother became pregnant with him when she was only 17. Bezos’s stepfather was a refugee from Cuba. In Bezo’s recent testimony to a congressional hearing, he said: “It’s not a coincidence that Amazon was born in this country. More than any other place on Earth, new companies can start, grow, and thrive here in the U.S.”

He went on to note, “The rest of the world would love even the tiniest sip of the elixir we have here in the U.S.” Yet Bezos’s apparent appreciation for American freedom does not reflect in his business practices. Recently, Bezos’s Amazon has been embroiled in several controversies. In one, Alex Berenson tweeted that Amazon refused to sell his book on Covid-19 and lockdowns because it doesn’t “comply with its guidelines on official COVID-19 information.” Amazon only reinstated Berenson’s book after public outcry.

Pay Back the Country That Gave You So Much

The Washington Post, also owned by Bezos, styles itself as a defender of democracy. Yet while the WaPo does all it can to undermine a duly elected president, it has no problem in spreading the CCP’s propaganda for the right price.

For 30 years, WaPo has distributed a special insert called “China Watch” to millions of readers. The insert is prepared by the state media China Daily with the aim of providing a positive view of the CCP’s authoritarian regime, while glossing over its human rights violations.

Bezos’s businesses are hardly alone. Other big-tech companies such Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google have shown they are all too willing to censor Americans’ free speech at home, while kowtowing to the CCP to protect their market access and profit in China.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr warned these businesses and the billionaires who own them: “A world marching to the beat of Communist China’s drums will not be a hospitable one for institutions that depend on free markets, free trade, or the free exchange of ideas.”

‘When You Lose Freedom, You Lose Everything’

Lai understands this well, and that is why he is willing to risk his life and fortune to fight for Hong Kong’s democracy and its 7.5 million residents’ freedom. Hongkongers also understand this, and that is why they showed solidarity with Lai by standing in line early in the morning to buy copies of Apple Daily after Lai’s arrest. The newspaper had to up its print runs from 70,000 to 500,000.

In an even more capitalist way, Hongkongers showed their support by purchasing shares of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily. Now Next Digital is valued at HK$2.9 billion and is the biggest publicly traded media company in Hong Kong.

There is a lesson for Bezos and other American millionaires and billionaires: when you risk your fortune to stand up for freedom, you may keep both freedom and fortune. Even if your fortune may take a hit in the short term, remember this: “When you lose freedom, you lose everything.”

The author writes anonymously on Hong Kong to avoid retaliation from China.