Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai pulled strings in sanctions conspiracy, court hears

Police officers stand guard as activist Andy Li is brought to the High Court on Thursday.
PHOTO: Reuters

Jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee Ying was the person pulling the strings behind a multimillion-dollar conspiracy to draw international sanctions against the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, prosecutors have alleged at the national security trial of two activists who admitted to colluding with foreign forces.

The High Court heard on Thursday (Aug 19) that Lai and his assistant, Mark Simon, had directly invested at least HK$13.7 million (S$2.4 million) in a scheme aimed at forcing the local government to accede to protesters’ demands stemming from the 2019 social unrest and even toppling the Chinese Communist Party.

The admission of collusion with foreign forces was the first in court since it became a crime under the national security law, and also marked the first public presentation of evidence purportedly proving such an offence.

Activist Andy Li Yu Hin, 30, admitted that he had engaged in an anti-Chinese campaign since the summer of 2019 under Lai’s instruction to attract “international sanctions, a blockade or other hostile activities” against the Beijing and local governments.

A handout photo. Hong Kong activist Andy Li pleaded guilty on Thursday to collusion with foreign forces. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post.

The activist, who spent seven months behind bars in mainland China after he was caught at sea during a bid to flee to Taiwan last summer, was brought to court amid a heavy police presence and stood before a judge hand-picked by the city’s leader to handle national security cases.

“I plead guilty,” Li said while surrounded in the dock by seven prison officers wearing bulletproof vests. “I agree with the summary of facts, and I would like to say sorry.”

In light of Li’s guilty plea, the prosecution agreed to withdraw a charge of conspiracy to assist offenders stemming from the activist’s attempt to escape the city by boat with 11 others in August last year.

A third charge against him of possessing ammunition without a licence was also dropped.

Li’s co-defendant, 29-year-old paralegal Chan Tsz Wah, also pleaded guilty to the collusion charge, which could potentially land the pair in jail for life.

Mr Justice Alex Lee Wan Tang adjourned the hearing to Jan 3 next year, and no sentencing date has been fixed.

Prosecutors refused to say whether the two accused would become prosecution witnesses in Lai’s pending national security trial.

Prosecutor Anthony Chau Tin Hang described Lai and his right-hand man, Simon, as the puppet masters who had instructed Chan and Li to appeal to the international community to engage in hostile acts in response to an extradition bill that was later scrapped and alleged police brutality during the anti-government unrest two years ago.

“Lai and Simon were the masterminds and financial supporters behind the scenes and at the highest level of command of the syndicate,” Chau said.

Relying on Lai’s financial strength, Li and fugitive activist Finn Lau Cho Dick started the “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong” group (SWHK) in August 2019 seeking foreign intervention in local affairs, the court was told.

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The organisation remained in operation after the Beijing-imposed national security law took effect on June 30 last year.

Li and Lau were known as two of the group’s core members on the surface, while Chan acted as the agent of Lai and Simon, the financial backers and de-facto leaders behind the scenes.

The prosecution alleged the plot was to realise Lai’s four-stage international lobbying agenda – informing foreign countries of Hong Kong’s situation, appealing to the international community, meeting foreign officials and bringing their ideas back to Hong Kong, and meeting foreign consultants and political advisers so as to influence their China policies – with the ultimate goal of “causing administrative and economic turmoil in China”.

The court heard SWHK had initiated four crowdfunding campaigns in 2019 and last year, receiving an estimated total of HK$37.6 million in donations.

The funds were used in publishing propaganda and reports, organising rallies, engaging with consultancy and lobbying firms, and sponsoring a British politician’s trip to Hong Kong to observe the protests.

Lai and Simon were directly involved at some stages, making advance payments for the propaganda and settling publication fees of newspaper articles which advocated opposition to the Beijing and Hong Kong governments.

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

The pair had also offered publicity for SWHK in the now-defunct Apple Daily which Lai founded, and allowed Lau, whom the prosecution described as a spiritual leader of the group, to freely use the tabloid-style newspaper’s copyrighted photographs for the propaganda.

With the help of the tycoon and his assistant, Li was able to establish a cohesive network with politicians in the United States, Britain and Japan, the prosecutors said.

In September 2019, Li met US senator Rick Scott and showed him 277 spent ammunition cases Hong Kong police had used against protesters during the unrest.

The activist also sent a sanction list targeting 144 mainland and Hong Kong officials to three other senators.

In July last year, after the security law took effect, Li engaged British politician Luke de Pulford and Japanese parliamentary members in persuading 32 countries to terminate extradition agreements and mutual legal assistance with Hong Kong, as well as pushing for the enactment of a Magnitsky-style act to be passed in Japan.

The prosecution alleged that as a result of the lobbying efforts, legislation and sanctions seeking to exert undue political pressure and influence over the mainland and Hong Kong governments were introduced in the US between July 2020 and January of this year.

The US and nine of its allies have also suspended arrangements with Hong Kong on the surrender of fugitive offenders.

Li was among six people arrested on Aug 10 for allegedly violating the national security law by colluding with foreign forces.

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Among them were Lai and activist Agnes Chow Ting, both of whom were already behind bars for unrelated offences.

About two weeks later, Li joined 11 other activists in attempting to flee Hong Kong by speedboat under the cover of night, only to be intercepted by the Chinese Coastguard.

Eight of them were handed over to Hong Kong authorities in March last year after serving seven months in jail in Shenzhen for the illegal crossing.

Two others were given longer sentences for organising the crime, while two underage activists in the group were not charged.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.