Hong Kong’s Jimmy Lai Isn’t Going Anywhere, Thank You

Over the past several months, Next Media mogul Jimmy Lai, one of the leaders and funders of Hong Kong’s Umbrella movement, has faced unprecedented personal and professional attacks, including having his emails hacked and more than 1,000 emails stolen, having pig entrails thrown at him, the gate of his home set afire and a variety of other affronts.

On Dec. 12, the 66-year-old Lai told the Hong Kong Stock Exchange he was stepping down as chairman and executive director of Next Media, which publishes the phenomenally popular Apple Daily and Next Magazine “to spend more time with family and to pursue personal interests.” He resigned his role as publisher last week when he was arrested during the final removal of protesters at the Admiralty government complex and the adjacent highway artery.

That has sent a frisson through the democratic movement not just in Hong Kong but across Asia. Lai is arguably the most powerful voice for a free press in the region. With the protest now over, democracy and free press advocates say, it seems certain that pressure on the free press in Hong Kong will increase, and particularly on Next media, with tycoons and some multinationals already having been warned to not advertise in either Apple Daily or Next despite the editorial sway of Apple Daily, whose circulation increased substantially during the protest at the expense of pro-Beijing publications as readers shunned pro-government newspapers and media. .

However, Lai has no intention of giving up the fight, said Mark Simon, the American commercial director for Next Media despite the fact that in the past two and a half months the drumbeat of harassment against both Lai and Next Media has picked up markedly. Apple Daily vendors have been intimidated, the entrance to the Nexi offices was blocked, the Independent Commission Against Corruption opened a case against Lai on suspicion of illegal contributions to democracy advocates and his computer files have been rifled by hackers.

At one point in October, hundreds of people surrounded the Next Media offices, which besides publishing Apple Daily and Next, also publishes magazines Suddenly Weekly, Eat and Travel Weekly and FACE. They refused to allow the distribution of the newspapers. Next officials responded by hiring a crane to lift the newspaper bundles over the head of the protesters. When a judge issued an injunction to clear the path so newspapers could be distributed, citing freedom of the press, crowds blocked the trucks anyway. Police did nothing to interfere with the protesters.

But if Lai is discouraged, it doesn’t show despite the change in his official status

“It is an odd thing that hope dies with some as they age and that is the sad state of some Hong Kong observers [who questioned Lai’s staying power], said Simon in an email. “There are a few, and Jimmy is one, who looks out and knows that the Xi Jinping system is unsustainable and will crack, sooner rather than later. The goal in Hong Kong is not always to drive full democracy forward, but to push the bastards back. Occupy Central pushed the bastards way back.”

Lai’s 30-year tilt with the Chinese government has had some setbacks. In large measure, concerns about a growing campaign against the Next Media empire are a repeat of Lai’s experience with Giordano, the impressively successful clothing line he started in 1981, making it one of Asia’s most recognized brands. However, in 1994 he criticized former Prime Minister Li Peng in Next Magazine, famously calling him a “son of a turtle’s egg” with zero IQ, a devastating insult in Chinese, and was almost immediately hit with financial and regulatory setbacks that stopped Giordano’s expansion dead in China. In 1996, he was forced to sell out of the company in order to allow it to continue to expand.

No Mainland Chinese companies have ever advertised in Next Media publications. Hong Kong’s property oligarchs have also boycotted it, as have HSBC, Hang Seng and other banks, and, for a time, Cathay Pacific Airlines. Nonetheless, the paper has prospered with a mix of sex and scandal, flashy graphics, and a heavy dose of continuing criticism of Beijing and Hong Kong’s luckless leaders. During the two and a half months of protest, the paper’s media unit commanded 89 percent of likes and reader interactions on Facebook, leaving other media lurching far behind.

“We are so far above Sing Tao and Oriental Daily News (both of which adopted a pro-administration line in the protest) now that it would be hard to say there is a number 2 in the market after us,” Simon wrote.

“Jimmy Lai knows the noose is tightening around Next Media. As more tycoons and multinationals are warned not to advertise in Apple Daily & Next Magazine, the business itself will be revenue-starved to death,”a Hong Kong media source told Asia Sentinel, to which Simon responded that was nonsense.

Lai, he said, has been considering stepping out for a long time. He took the position as publisher after the previous publisher left and a new designee had never shown up. He was only publisher for nine months. Next Media, he said, is not and will not be up for sale.

“Leaving the position as chairman and board chairman were a clear sign we are re-tooling after Jimmy completed the transition from print to digital, which is a huge move,” Simon said. “So he is leaving on top.

Cassian Cheung Ka-sing has been appointed interim chairman and CEO of Next Media. In a message to the Stock Exchange, Cheung said the changes in the board wouldn’t change the way the company operates.