The fact that Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai and other dissidents have been freed on bail after their latest arrest shows that even under new security laws imposed by Beijing, the Special Administrative Region still enjoys a distinction from Chinese mainland legal practices. Arrestees there do not soon emerge from incarceration pre-trial—sometimes never.
This is a modest consolation and perhaps not a lasting one. The Xi Jinping crowd’s crackdown on Hong Kong has escalated and little confidence can be placed in the assurances of the SAR’s Vichy administration that safeguards will remain in place. Thus, gloom gathers around each successive act of Chinese dominion despite the persistent, rebellious spirit of many Hong Kongers.
This is a sad twilight for one of the globe’s great symbols of human freedom, going back to its time as a British colony. Many Westerners carry fond and admiring memories. Certainly I have, from several stays, two of which included time with Jimmy Lai. A scrappy Chinese immigrant who built a garment business and then became a tabloid news monger, he surprised me during an interview in the early 1990s for the Wall Street Journal by crediting social philosopher Karl Popper for inspiration. Lai’s mix of high- mindedness and vulgarity was as popular with his audience as it was detested by the Communist Party. By the time he invited me and a Forbes colleague to dinner at his distinctive home a decade later, he was steeled for battles to come but, first, came a fine-chateau Bordeaux.
Hong Kong was changing and, much as its business establishment tried to pretend otherwise, outsiders like Jimmy and a generation that could be his grandchildren began gathering in the streets to fight the drift toward “one system” with the People’s Republic. They were and are joined, of course, by many professionals and ordinary folk who’ve always embraced the notion that political freedoms went along with the economic liberties that set their city apart. The irony was, however, that Hong Kong’s success made it tempting for occupation by many who’ve captured the spoils of mainland-style capitalism, and with that loot has come insidious power and influence.
The curtain isn’t likely to come down quickly on all that was special about Hong Kong. It is in the interest of few that such an abrupt end occur. But the long run, even with stirring performances by 71-year-old Jimmy Lai and his young rebel offspring, we will see the lights dim. May the spirit that lifted that place find a new port of call in Asia or beyond.