Published: 13:39, February 11, 2024 | Updated: 13:39, February 11, 2024
What if all these were to happen in the US?
By Lo Wing-hung

Jimmy Lai Chee-ying is still on trial on a string of charges, including sedition and collusion with foreign forces, under Hong Kong’s National Security Law.

The Wall Street Journal published a joint statement on Feb 4 by four former US consuls general in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, including Richard Boucher and James Keith, expressing their "continued concern" about the “horrific circumstances” in the case of Next Digital founder Jimmy Lai, and that they were extremely “disheartened and worried” about the trial. They also said it’s a “shame seeing such a prominent Hong Kong journalist being charged for engaging in normal journalism”, and that the case is a “stain on the reputation and splendor that Hong Kong once had … Seeing such a prominent Hong Kong journalist being tried just for doing normal journalistic work is to tarnish the reputation and splendor that Hong Kong once had”. 

A former US consul general in the SAR, James Cunningham, has already been named by the prosecution as a “co-conspirator” of Lai, and the statement by the four former consuls general in defense of Cunningham can only be taken as supporting him. 

Whether Lai would ultimately be convicted or acquitted of the charges is only for the court to decide. It’s ridiculous for four former US consuls general in the SAR to issue a statement demanding Lai’s release 

The four former consuls general called Lai a “prominent Hong Kong journalist”. This is fascinating enough to be examined as this is a perception that’s completely different from that of Hong Kong people. Lai is not a journalist, but a businessman and a media boss. The case has revealed that his private banking account, as well as those of his companies, had received funds to the tune of HK$2.9 billion ($370 million) of which HK$1.6 billion, or 55 percent, came from the United States and Canada. It was heard that Lai had remitted HK$118 million to his assistant Mark Simon, who’s alleged to have paid HK$93 million to the pan-democratic camp and political figures, and had allegedly hired Paul Wolfowitz -- former deputy US defense secretary – to work for him. Simon is also alleged to have made six transfers of funds to Wolfowitz amounting to HK$1.76 million.

Which Hong Kong reporter would have a fortune of HK$2.9 billion and the means to donate HK$93 million to a political party? Even US journalists don’t have that ability to do so. Imagine, if a US businessman were to collude with a former Chinese defense minister and make a large donation to an American political party, that businessman would immediately be charged with treason. The maximum penalty for treason in the US is death, but there’s no such sentence in Hong Kong.

Is Lai being tried just for his work in journalism, and is it true he had been engaged in normal journalistic work? The facts of the case, as revealed by the court, are disturbing. It was heard that Lai had forwarded a message from former US consul general in Hong Kong, James Cunningham, to former chief executive officer of Next Digital, Cheung Kim-hung, in 2019. The message suggested that Lai hype up the visit of Chan Fang On-sang, former chief secretary for administration of the HKSAR, for a meeting with then-US vice-president Mike Pence. Is it normal for the boss of a media organization to direct his staff to play up a news item on the instructions of a former foreign diplomatic envoy in Hong Kong?

The trial has also revealed that, on March 30, 2019, Lai sent a WhatsApp message to Chen Pui-man, then vice-president of Apple Daily, instructing her to “continue reporting on the dangers faced by Hong Kong businessmen on Chinese mainland in order to scare them off, and force the pro-establishment camp not to do anything wrong”. 

Is it the work of journalists to do make businessmen frightened? If a former Chinese ambassador to the US were to instruct The Wall Street Journal to report a major news story in China’s favor; or if the US had tried to scare off businessmen in the US because Washington had enacted legislation to impose tariffs on China, saying they would lose a lot of business, would the US allow this to happen?

Has Lai’s trial tarnished Hong Kong’s reputation and splendor? The four former US consuls general in Hong Kong claimed that Lai was like a reporter who was arrested and put on trial for his journalistic work. Such a mentality is absurd as it’s not the case at all. Lai kept instructing the editorial staff of Apple Daily to encourage Hong Kong residents to take to the streets by all means, and even complained there weren’t enough people staging demonstrations, and told his staff to step up efforts to publicize it. Is this an independent editorial decision or the boss’s personal decision?

It would be unthinkable for the head of a media group in the US to order his staff to mobilize Americans to protest in public in support of the Palestinians and against the US government.

What would happen then? Whether Lai would ultimately be convicted or acquitted of the charges is only for the court to decide. It’s ridiculous for four former US consuls general in the SAR to issue a statement demanding Lai’s release. Why should Hong Kong give in to such an absurd demand? In the same vein, could Hong Kong demand that the US government free Enrique Tarrio – the head of the rightist group Proud Boys, who was jailed for 22 years for sedition.  

The US itself has kept emphasizing protecting national security against foreign interference. At the same time, it’s meddling in the politics and affairs of other countries and regions, and even called for release of defendants or co-conspirators in criminal cases elsewhere. Isn’t this practicing double standards?

Lo Wing-hung is a senior commentator