Arrest of Jimmy Lai damaged activist group’s US ties, court hears

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai’s arrest dealt a “heavy blow” to pro-democracy advocacy group Stand With Hong Kong, causing it to lose its connections to US politicians, the media mogul’s national security trial has heard.

Activist Andy Li was also arrested in the same police swoop on August 10, 2020, but the activist group had a “Plan B” to sustain lobbying efforts overseas, said paralegal Chan Tsz-wah, who stands accused of conspiring with Lai and others to collude with foreign forces.

Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Lai faces two counts of conspiring to collude with foreign forces and one count of conspiring to publish “seditious” materials. He has pleaded not guilty to all three charges and could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.

The prosecution on Wednesday presented to the court text messages from Chan to activist and co-defendant Andy Li saying that business people and politicians were “cutting ties” with Lai. The messages were dated August 10, 2020, the day of Lai’s arrest under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

‘A heavy blow’

Testifying against the mogul, Chan said he was told by Lai’s aide Mark Simon earlier that those who previously expressed support for Lai had cut ties with him following his arrest: “At the time, I thought – ‘When the tree topples, the monkeys scatter’,” Chan told the court.

In another exchange with Chan, Simon said he and Lai both believed the tycoon’s arrest would be “a good thing” as it would arouse more attention from people and increase Apple Daily’ sales.

Apple DailyApple Daily
Apple Daily’s final edition dated June 24, 2021. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

But without Lai, Stand With Hong Kong, of which Chan was a member, would lose its ties to political figures in the US, and by extension, its ability to tap into the US government’s internal discussions on Hong Kong.

“Lai’s political connections could help Stand With Hong Kong push for sanctions, and allow it to save a lot of resources. At the time, it was a very heavy blow,” said Chan, who joined the group’s US chapter shortly after the national security law came into effect on June 30 that year.

Chan also said that both Simon and Lai were more supportive of the US Republican Party, as they believed they were more “anti-China” compared with the Democratic Party.

Andy Li arrested

The court also heard on Wednesday that Chan had tried to convince Li to leave Hong Kong prior to his arrest, also on August 10, as he believed Li had already violated the national security law by involving himself in high-profile appearances at the United Nations and lobbying US politicians.

Hong Kong activist Andy Li. File photo: Screenshot, via Radio Free Asia.Hong Kong activist Andy Li. File photo: Screenshot, via Radio Free Asia.
Hong Kong activist Andy Li. File photo: Screenshot, via Radio Free Asia.

The court was showed a text message dated August 10 from Chan telling Li to leave the city. “Brother, leave me here – we can’t afford one more [loss] on the international front,” Chan told the activist via messaging app Signal.

See also: Jimmy Lai trial: Sanctions among ‘immature ideas’ activist Andy Li ‘floated,’ court hears  

But Li refused to leave, despite the efforts of Shirley Ho, a US-based activist who was a part of Stand With Hong Kong, to bring him to the US. “It was our tacit understanding that I would be the last man standing in Hong Kong, and I wanted to persuade him to leave,” he told the court.

Chan called the activist “stubborn,” adding that he intended to take up Li’s role in Hong Kong once the activist had left.

West Kowloon Law Courts Building. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.West Kowloon Law Courts Building. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
West Kowloon Law Courts Building. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Hours after sending the texts, Li was arrested in a police swoop. Chan on Wednesday told the court he was worried that the activist’s arrest would affect the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, especially because he had initiated a petition against the national security law that was met with an enthusiastic reception.

Plan B

Simon said not to worry, Chan told the court, as Stand With Hong Kong had a “Plan B”: to send activist Finn Lau on a speaking tour around US colleges. Lau, whom Chan referred to by the moniker “Mutual Destruction Bro,” would give speeches to advocate for “mutual destruction,” push for sanctions, and promote anti-China policies.

Li would then attempt to flee for Taiwan by sea two weeks after being released on bail. The escape bid failed, and Li was detained by the Chinese authorities along with 11 other protesters previously arrested by the Hong Kong police.

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Pro-democracy activist Alexandra Wong holding a “Save 12” sign. Photo: Supplied.

Two months after the initial arrests, Chan was arrested on October 10 that year as a co-conspirator in Lai’s national security trial. Within several days of being released on police bail, Simon told Chan “not to worry” and that he and Lai would arrange legal support and a “way out” for Chan, the court heard.

Chan also said that Simon advised him to be mentally prepared to be arrested again under the national security law. Despite that, Simon said there was, again, “no need to worry,” and told Chan to continue his international lobbying efforts and keep pushing for sanctions, Chan testified.

“I didn’t have a response,” Chan told the court.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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