Op-Ed: Jimmy Lai, the Billionaire Freedom Fighter

Published 12:32 am Sunday, August 23, 2020

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Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson

Hong Kong police arrested billionaire publisher Jimmy Lai on August 10, releasing him two days later. His “crime” was to express opposition to the mainland Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) aggression against Hong Kong – both in person and through the newspapers and magazines that he owns.

According to the 1997 treaty returning the thriving island of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to its historical status as part of China, the CCP promised to respect Hong Kong’s independence from mainland law and governance (“one country, two systems”) until 2047. At that time, formal reunification with the mainland would go into effect. The CCP, however, is reneging on its promises. It seeks to dictate policies to Hong Kong now, and clearly desires to crush dissent.

Because he is one of the most visible figures leading Hong Kong’s resistance, Jimmy Lai is an obvious target. But who is Jimmy Lai?

When I taught the “Entrepreneurship & Enterprise” course at Grove City College, we examined several dozen entrepreneurs, both past and present. The most touching life story was Jimmy Lai’s. His rags-to-riches journey was more amazing than any Horatio Alger story. In the Acton Institute’s superb film, “The Call of the Entrepreneur,” the modest, self-effacing Jimmy Lai shared his poignant life story.

Born in mainland China in 1948, he grew up in the wretched poverty of Mao Zedong’s communism. His father was gone (possibly killed or imprisoned by the communists) and his mother’s state-mandated job took her away from home except on weekends. Jimmy and two young siblings had to take care of themselves Monday through Friday starting when they were only five or six years old.

At age ten, Jimmy worked carrying passengers’ luggage at a train station. A traveler tipped Jimmy with a chocolate bar. Before then, Jimmy hadn’t known that there was such a thing as chocolate or that any food could taste so delicious. He resolved to leave China and find a land where miracles like chocolate happened. Every weekend, Jimmy would beg his mother to help him escape China. Finally, when Jimmy was 12, his mother arranged for smugglers to transport him to Hong Kong.

Jimmy was so happy with the improvement in his life. In Hong Kong he worked 12-hour days in a sweatshop for a place to sleep, simple food, and $8 per month. But most importantly, he now had hope. Having observed that people who spoke English were more prosperous, he taught himself English. By age 20, he was managing that factory.

Over the next six years, Lai hatched plans to buy his own factory. He scrimped and saved. He also read as much as he could about stock markets. Through astute stock investments, he increased his meager capital and, at 26, bought a bankrupt factory. He made sweaters and grew his business into a successful retail chain called Giordano’s that had over 2,000 shops in 30 countries, becoming a billionaire.

Lai could have coasted through the rest of his life enjoying his vast fortune, but China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was his epiphany. He adopted a new life mission: to bring freedom to the long-oppressed Chinese people. He left the clothing business and, with no prior experience, started a pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily. His newspaper enjoys widespread popularity and is the heart of a popular media empire. It is also a major thorn in the side of the CCP, which has brought about a showdown with Lai.

Last week was the third time the CCP has had Lai arrested this year. He knows that at any time police could send him to the mainland where he could face life imprisonment or worse. If that happens, it will be a clear sign that the CCP is moving into a more aggressive mode. That would be a dark day not just for Jimmy Lai and his loved ones but for the whole world.

Despite the threat hovering over him, Jimmy Lai remains unbowed. A devout Catholic convert, he accepts as his Savior Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself for others. Following in the footsteps of his Savior, Jimmy Lai appears willing to lay down his life in the struggle to secure the God-given rights of his fellow man. (So much for the bogus stereotype of “greedy, self-absorbed billionaires!”) Lai understands that the priceless rights of freedom of religion, free speech and press, free enterprise, freedom of conscience, don’t belong to one country or one race, but are universal, belonging to the entire human race. He is truly a global hero. Indeed, he may be this generation’s most famous practitioner of nonviolent resistance, although because he is resisting communism and is a billionaire, certain “intellectuals” won’t acknowledge his selfless heroism.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 KJV). God bless you and preserve your soul, Jimmy Lai.


Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is a retired adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.