Faith, freedom and firebombs: Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai

Faith, freedom and firebombs: Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai
As one of Hong Kong's most outspoken democracy advocates, media tycoon Jimmy Lai has been on the receiving end of everything from rotten animal entrails to Molotov cocktails in the past year.
PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG - As one of Hong Kong's most outspoken democracy advocates, media tycoon Jimmy Lai has been on the receiving end of everything from rotten animal entrails to Molotov cocktails in the past 12 months.

When the city erupted into mass protests last year against a Beijing-backed plan for its next leader, father-of-six Lai, 66, became a frequent fixture at the major rally site and a regular target for pro-government supporters.

The contentious bill would have allowed the public to vote for Hong Kong's leader for the first time, but kept to a Beijing ruling that all candidates must be vetted by a loyalist committee - derided as "fake democracy" by Lai and opposition campaigners.

After months of political wrangling the proposal was finally voted down on Thursday by lawmakers in an unprecedented rebuke by the semi-autonomous city towards Beijing.

But with the defeat of the bill, Hong Kong's leader will continue to be chosen by a pro-Beijing committee and Lai is preparing for the next phase of battle.

"It's very encouraging for Hong Kong (that the bill was rejected)," he tells AFP.

"What's going to happen in the end? We really don't know. But once we give up, we are giving up fighting for our democracy and freedom. We are kind of giving up our dignity as humans," he says.

Founder of the strident anti-government newspaper Apple Daily and the main shareholder - along with his wife Teresa - in its publisher Next Media, Lai draws both admiration and bile.

His house and office were firebombed in January and putrid animal organs thrown at him during the demonstrations.

"You just get used to it. I've never had a bodyguard," says a matter-of-fact Lai.

"If I go to the MTR (Hong Kong's subway) there's always someone shouting at me, pointing at me, calling me 'traitor'. I don't care.

"I just do what I think is right."

'China must change'

Beijing has shown no sign of compromise on future reform for Hong Kong and there are fears of a backlash in the wake of the defeat of the bill, but Lai says China must change.

"China being the number two strongest country in the world and having a dictator like (President) Xi Jinping on top of it is making a lot of other countries restless," says Lai.

"Also, domestically, a lot of people think Xi Jinping is becoming Mao Zedong," he says, referring to the founding father of communist China.

"By giving Hong Kong democracy, people would look at them as enlightened leaders.

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