A Catholic democracy advocate was honored in absentia on Tuesday at a Catholic gathering in Washington, D.C., while he remains imprisoned in Hong Kong.
Jimmy Lai, a media entrepreneur and Catholic pro-democracy advocate in Hong Kong, was given the Christifidelis Laici award on Sept. 14 by organizers of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. The award is named for Pope John Paul II’s 1988 exhortation on the mission of the laity in the world.
Lai “believed that we are created for truth and that it is our job to speak the truth,” said William McGurn, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board who accepted the award on Lai’s behalf on Tuesday. “His publications told the truth about China & Hong Kong.”
“He is a man of extraordinary means, serving ordinary men and women longing for freedom,” said Joseph Cella, a board member of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.
Lai has been imprisoned for 10 months in Hong Kong, having long supported the pro-democracy movement there and having cited his Catholic faith in support of his efforts.
An entrepreneur, he founded both Next magazine, a Chinese weekly publication, and Apple Daily, a pro-democracy publication critical of the Chinese mainland government. Apple Daily shut down publication earlier this summer, after its accounts were frozen and top leadership was arrested.
In 1997, he converted to Catholicism and was baptized by the now-retired bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen.
Lai's conversion, at the time the United Kingdom handed over sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, was “like a small green shoot breaking through the concrete,” McGurn said of the time.
Hong Kong had previously maintained its own legislature and democratic form of government under the “one country, two systems” agreement, as the U.K. prepared to hand sovereignty of the region to China. However, the Chinese mainland government had sought greater control over Hong Kong in recent years before imposing a sweeping national security law on the region in 2020, bypassing the island’s legislature. The act followed months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Under the new law, a person convicted of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces would receive a minimum of 10 years in prison, with the possibility of a life sentence.
Lai was arrested in August 2020 over his support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and remained on the island to face his charges. People had urged Lai – who is also a British citizen – to leave Hong Kong before he would be arrested, McGurn noted.
“If you thought that [leaving] was ever a possibility, you don’t know Jimmy Lai,” McGurn said.
Released on bail, he was arrested again later in the year, and was charged in December with breaching the terms of a lease for his company, Next Digital Media.
Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal on Feb. 9 denied Lai bail, but allowed his legal team the possibility of applying again for bail. He has remained in prison for 10 months.
During his prison term, he has applied the Rule of St. Benedict – “ora et labora,” or “prayer and work,” McGurn noted.
“When he’s not reading the classics of the faith,” McGurn said of Lai, “he has a job folding paper into envelopes.” Some fellow prisoners have even been baptized during his term, McGurn said.
“While Jimmy may be stuck in prison, his soul remains free,” he said.