Smear campaigns and the ‘sham trial’ of Jimmy Lai

China loads the deck with handpicked judges in a test case for media freedom and judicial independence 

China’s ultimate show trial is taking place in Hong Kong. On Monday, media mogul Jimmy Lai entered a heavily guarded Kowloon court to face national security charges.

If convicted, the 76-year-old Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper could face life imprisonment. Lai has denied the charges.

State-run Chinese media have taken a different view, parroting the ruling Communist Party’s line after pro-democracy demonstrations rocked Hong Kong in 2019.

Nationalist tabloid Global Times spearheaded the smear campaign with its headline screaming, Secessionist Jimmy Lai faces trial. 

“He is an agent and pawn of the anti-China forces, and the person behind the riots in Hong Kong,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in what can only be seen as prejudicial to Lai’s case.

“What he did was detrimental to Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability and the well-being of the people in Hong Kong,” he added.

This case has been an attack on press freedom and freedom of expression.

Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for China

The facts:

  • Rags to Riches Lai is considered a hero by Hongkongers while Apple Daily was a symbol of the pro-democracy movement.
  • It railed against a sweeping National Security Law imposed on the city by Beijing in 2020, triggering mass arrests of pro-democracy activists.
  • The move effectively ended the “One Country, Two Systems” model agreed upon by China and the United Kingdom before the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997.

Delve deeper: Only politicians loyal to the Communist Party are allowed to stand for office. Dissenting voices have either been banned or jailed, along with pro-democracy campaigners such as Lai.  

Between the lines: “This case has been an attack on press freedom and freedom of expression … Now Jimmy Lai faces a sham trial,” Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for China, Sarah Brooks, said.

Big picture: On Sunday, UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron called for Lai, a British citizen, to be released. “I call on the Hong Kong authorities to end their prosecution and release Jimmy Lai,” he said.

China Factor comment: Even the three judges presiding over the trial have been handpicked by the government. Talk about loading the deck in what is now a test case for media freedom and judicial independence.