Lai has already been sentenced to more than five and half years over a commercial lease at Apple Daily, and faces additional charges under the national security law (NSL) and sedition law, which dates from colonial times.
Lai was also denied his choice of lawyer – veteran British barrister Timothy Owen – for the NSL trial, which will be heard before a panel of three judges approved by Beijing.
Sebastien Lai, the tycoon’s 28-year-old son spoke to Al Jazeera in Taipei about his father’s situation and his hopes for the future.
Al Jazeera: What are your expectations for the upcoming trial?
Sebastien Lai: I’m optimistic, in a sense. Obviously, this is a show trial. There’s actually no basis for national security convictions. There’s no basis for anything that they can convict on up to now, and he’s been in jail for three years. But my expectation is that it’s an opportunity to see if Hong Kong and the Hong Kong government are people of their word, because at the end of the day, what was happening is very obvious to the free world.
They’re basically punishing a publisher, a 75-year-old man, for standing up for the freedoms that the Hong Kong state has and that were also promised during the handover. That’s all it is really and they’re using a national security law, and the national security law isn’t retroactive. That’s something that they’ve stated very clearly – once it was in place, from that point is what counts. So if we look at it even just on that very level, on their word, then none of these guys should be in jail.
I think there’s a reason why they keep delaying the trial. There’s a belief that if you’re delaying it, it means that you don’t have a very strong case. And also, more importantly, they are really trying to get it under everybody’s radar – that’s why they’re doing it during Christmas. That’s my conclusion on my part, but it makes sense.
Al Jazeera: How do you feel about the government’s decision to block your father’s choice of a British lawyer for his national security trial?
Lai: I have no contact with the Hong Kong legal team. My contact is with the international legal team, and they’re independent of one another. And with the lawyer they provide… it goes to show where the Hong Kong legal system is now. But more importantly, I think it’s just a symptom of a much greater disease, of a much greater decay of the whole legal system.
You can see that in dad getting 12 months for lighting a candle at a Tiananmen Square vigil, how recently he was acquitted for organising a protest that 1.7 million showed up at, but he had already carried out the sentence.
Either way, I think the greater point is he served more than 10 months more than a year (referring to the time his father had already spent in prison) for participating in a protest with 1.7 million people, and on another level 1.7 million went out and protested [against] the government. I think what’s happening with the foreign lawyer is unfortunate but it’s more of a sense of where the Hong Kong legal system is going.
Al Jazeera: What can other countries like the United Kingdom do?
Lai: The UK has a responsibility to its citizens. My father is a citizen… they have a responsibility to their citizens, especially when they are being unjustly treated abroad. And there’s also an element of Hong Kong has essentially broken its promise to the UK about 50 years of handover, so there’s also that. The UK has to hold Hong Kong accountable, or at least call Hong Kong out that they are willing to break the pacts they have with other nations on a whim.
Hong Kong is trying to tell the world that they are open for business and they want to be part of the world again, and it’s important to realise that Hong Kong’s main benefit is it’s a place where it’s very close to China but it had the rule of law and a very free government system. It used to be a model of freedom and Hong Kong is still trying to tell the world that they have that, but they can’t do that if they have someone like my dad in jail. They can’t say they have free press and send 500 people to raid a newspaper. You have to choose one or the other. I don’t think you can treat the world like they’re stupid.
Hong Kong can either show the world that ‘we still want to be a part of the world economy’, ‘we still want to be open for business’ or they can keep doing this folly, which is basically cruel. My father, and the other political prisoners, they’ve already slandered their names and put them in jail. Dad’s been in jail for three years and at 75 that’s a long time. And so I think at this point it’s just cruel.
I hope that the UK puts my dad’s case forward every time they negotiate with Hong Kong, they are vocal about this and tell China and Hong Kong that this is unacceptable behaviour and that it’s not acceptable for China and Hong Kong to step on the freedoms that the UK has, or the free world has.
Al Jazeera: How’s your father doing in prison?
Lai: Unfortunately I haven’t seen him in more than three years since I left in 2020. I recently saw photos of him. I think he’s a strong man and I know that he is mentally tough, I know that obviously knowing you’re doing the right thing is a great source of strength, his religion is a great source of strength, but at his age he is the oldest political prisoner in Hong Kong unless they try to arrest someone else.
Al Jazeera: Are you close with him? People have challenging relationships with their fathers sometimes.
Lai: I was very fortunate, I was incredibly lucky because by the time that I was born, dad was already a bit older. So I’m 28, he’s 75. He was 47 when I was born, so obviously he was still very busy but we got to spend a lot of time together growing up. I think at the end of the day, he’s obviously someone I look up to greatly because of his actions [and] because of his willingness to stand by his word.
I saw videos from the BBC that they showed me from the archives and it was him before the handover. These English guys were interviewing him, and the crazy thing is this is like 30 years ago and when they ask him, ‘What are they going to do? Are they going to come after you?’ And he tears up and says, ‘Hong Kong is my home, it’s given me everything, so I’ll protect it’. And that was 30 years ago. It’s mind-blowing.
Al Jazeera: How would you describe the Hong Kong of today compared with the one where you grew up?
Lai: I think for a lot of people Hong Kong was always a very hopeful place. It had its issues but it was always a very hopeful place – a place where because of the institutions that were in place … where if someone was willing to work really hard they could have a successful outcome. But I think more importantly, it was one of the rare places in the world – a society of Chinese people that had freedoms besides universal suffrage. It was an experiment in that sense. It was always people leaving mainland China to come to Hong Kong and not Hong Kong to mainland China. So for me that was always a source of pride, the freedoms that we had, the hope that we had it’s what made Hong Kong so dynamic.
My impression of Hong Kong Kong now – and I haven’t been for three years – is that by and large that freedom is gone. It’s a place where the government has blurred the lines of the law so much that most people would rather stay clear of it. I think that element of not being scared of what you say or scared of what you do, I think that’s central to why Hong Kong was successful.
Al Jazeera: Where do you see Hong Kong in five years?
Lai: I think it depends on if the people running Hong Kong realise it’s true that these freedoms are one way to [stand out] because in the end, the government has to be accountable for what they say, they will be judged on their actions. I hope and I don’t know if that will be the case that Hong Kong will realise the cost of giving up these freedoms is too high and reinstate them. If that’s the case there is a possibility of it being a world city again. I think where it’s going though it’s probably going to be another mainland city, and it’s going to lose its competitive advantage, it’s no longer going to be able to compete with other cities in mainland China.