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Rishi Sunak must do all he can to save my father, writes SEBASTIEN LAI

My British father faces life in a Chinese jail because he’s a true figurehead for freedom. Rishi Sunak must do all he can to save him, writes SEBASTIEN LAI

My father Jimmy Lai will not be silenced. I am in awe of his courage and determination to defend the remnants of democracy and free speech in Hong Kong.

But since his arrest three years ago, I have been unable to see him. And with his show trial under way this week, threatening him with a life sentence on trumped-up charges under China’s National Security Law (NSL), I must face the fact that I might never see him again.

The court hearing, expected to last 80 days, is a severe test of Hong Kong’s judicial independence. I’m deeply sceptical, not least because the three judges have been appointed by the government.

His best hope now may be increased pressure from the UK Government.

The Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron has called for my father’s release, describing the trial as ‘politically motivated’ and warning that the NSL is ‘a clear breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration’.

Jimmy Lai (pictured) is facing a show trial under way this week, threatening him with a life sentence on trumped-up charges under China’s National Security Law (NSL)

He added: ‘It has damaged Hong Kong, with rights and freedoms sufficiently eroded. Arrests under the law have silenced opposition voices.’

This was a very welcome intervention from him.

I met Lord Cameron last week and reminded him that my father is a British citizen, with no other nationality or passport. Yet Beijing calls him a traitor, because he was born in China 76 years ago.

In fact, he left China for Hong Kong at the age of 12. He built an international clothing business and then a pro-democracy media empire.

His newspaper, Apple Daily, was a blend of popular journalism and hard-hitting attacks against Chinese repression, giving a voice to critics of the mainland regime. Forced to close down in 2021, its editors were arrested and accused of ‘colluding with foreign forces’.

The Chinese government has wanted to silence Jimmy Lai for years.

When I was growing up, the fourth of six children, there were regular death threats. Our house was firebombed, and the skinned corpse of a dog was nailed to our door. Police arrested a man carrying a gun and a photo of my father, and there were rumours of assassination plots.

This was a price Dad would willingly pay for free speech. Apple Daily was brazenly outspoken in its attacks on Beijing, to an extent that delighted and amazed its Hong Kong readers.

When Sebastien Lai (pictured) was growing up, the fourth of six children, there were regular death threats

One headline denounced Li Peng — the Chinese premier who was instrumental in the Tiananmen Square massacre — as a ‘son of a turtle’s egg’, which is like a British newspaper calling a British Cabinet minister a ‘son of a b****’.

Dad refused to hire a bodyguard, though his car was often followed and our house watched by goons who made no attempt to hide themselves. He has never been afraid to make enemies — in fact, he never appeared to be afraid of anyone or anything.

It’s a lesson he learned at the age of five, as Chairman Mao’s Communist dictatorship crushed the middle classes. My father’s family had been comparatively affluent, which made them a prime target.

His own father fled, leaving his children and wife behind in the city of Canton in destitution. She was sent to the work camps, and my dad had to find ways of making enough money to look after his sisters. He began making and peddling cigarettes, picking up stubs in the street and picking out the tobacco to roll again.

Older boys used to beat him up and steal his cigarettes, so he started helping people with their bags at the train station, pushing a cart in exchange for tips. One day, when he was nine, a passenger gave him a piece of chocolate.

Imagine tasting chocolate for the first time if you’re starving. He asked the man where he came from. ‘Hong Kong,’ he replied, and from that moment it was fixed in my father’s mind as a kind of paradise on Earth.

At the same time, he befriended a policeman who used to hang around their house, hopelessly in love with one of the other lodgers. One day, Dad heard the woman having a huge row with her boyfriend, and he tipped off this policeman: she’s single again, grab your chance.

As payback, the officer arranged his passage to Macau, and from there he was able to make the illegal crossing across the water to Hong Kong. An aunt paid for the journey and he settled his debts by working in a glove factory, sleeping on the floor.

As Jimmy Lai faces a life sentence, his son Sebastien is calling on Rishi Sunak’s Government to do everything it can to intercede

The Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron has called for Jimmy Lai’s release, describing the trial as ‘politically motivated’

Before long, a manager spotted his potential, and he got a place on the sales team. Soon he was doing deals in New York, promoting Hong Kong as a textile centre.

He won bonuses, which he saved, and when the opportunity came up to buy a bankrupt knitwear factory for next to nothing, he seized it.

That factory became one of the biggest clothing manufacturers in Hong Kong. He then started the clothing brand, Giordano, with outlets across China and Asia.

When the Tiananmen Square protests happened in 1989, he became an enthusiastic campaigner for democracy, in part because he knew how important political freedoms were for Hong Kong. If China embraced them too, its potential as an economic superpower was unlimited.

Instead, the tanks rolled in. Protesters were shot, crushed, beaten and arrested. My father fought back, launching Apple Daily to keep campaigning for freedom. But he knew people wouldn’t buy the paper if it was all polemic. It had to appeal to readers, the first Hong Kong paper to use a chatty, colloquial tone and the first to print in colour.

When the Tiananmen Square protests happened in 1989, Lai became an enthusiastic campaigner for democracy

In 1992, he became a full British citizen. From that moment, he could have left Hong Kong and run his empire in safety from the UK at any time. But he stayed.

And when the Chinese authorities started putting pressure on his clothing business to silence him, he doubled down, selling the factories and stores to concentrate on the newspaper.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests gathered force in 2014, and my father has been at the forefront. When I was in my teens, he’d come home, reeking of tear gas, eyes streaming, because he’d been at the demonstrations.

If the Chinese government knew what was good for them, they would free him at once. He has always been a voice for moderation, urging against the use of violence. His influence is still immense.

But in 2020, he attended a protest of two million people and lit a candle as they prayed in memory of the Tiananmen Square victims. He was arrested, charged with ‘unlawful assembly’ and sentenced to 11 months in jail for attending the protest, and 13 months for attending the vigil.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests gathered force in 2014, and Jimmy Lai has been at the forefront (Pictured: The Hong Kong SAR flag (left) and the People’s Republic of China flag (right))

Shortly afterwards, bogus charges of infringing a leasehold were brought against him, and another sentence of five years and nine months imposed. That’s the equivalent of locking someone up for working from home or sleeping at the office.

The message from Beijing was loud and clear.

Jimmy Lai was the most high-profile democracy campaigner, and he was being jailed on a whim.

If it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone.

Now he’s facing a life sentence. I am calling on Rishi Sunak’s Government to do everything it can to intercede — not just because he is my father, not just because he is British, but because he is a true figurehead for freedom.

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