Opinion | Hong Kong’s Jimmy Lai goes on trial soon. So does freedom of speech.

“Freedom of speech is a dangerous job,” the Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai wrote by hand in a letter from prison last year. Apple Daily is his scrappy tabloid newspaper, which became a voice for democracy and Hong Kong. The authorities have brought up bogus charges against Mr. Lai under Beijing’s restrictive National Security Law. His trial is to begin this week — and the right to freedom of expression and association will be in the dock with him.

Mr. Lai wrote in his handwritten letter that it is “a journalist’s responsibility to uphold justice” and “it is precisely this that we need to love and cherish. … The era is falling apart before us, and it is time for us to stand tall.”

This era included the years in which Mr. Lai rose to wealth from poverty, and was characterized by Hong Kong as a beacon for free speech, free enterprise, and rule of law. China pledged that it would uphold this system when it seized Hong Kong in 1997 from Britain. But in recent years, it has betrayed the promise and absorbed the territory into the mainland’s authoritarian system, cracking down on public protests, arresting dissidents and journalists, and shutting down the free press — including Apple Daily, which published its last print edition on June 24, 2021, after the government seized its assets and forced a closure.

In 1960, as a 12-year-old boy in poverty, Mr. Lai fled the mainland for Hong Kong. He worked in sweatshops as a child laborer while learning English. He bought a bankrupt clothing factory and built a clothing retailer with outlets all over Asia. He sold the business in 1989 to become a media tycoon and founded the newspaper in 1995. Apple Daily was founded by Mr. Lai in 1995. He became a vocal critic for the Beijing leadership.

In an attempt to intimidate and humiliate Mr. Lai, the government has taken him into custody several times over recent years. The most serious charges against him are the ones he faces in the upcoming trial. A conviction could lead to life imprisonment. In June 2021, he was accused of colluding with foreign powers — a ludicrous charge. Police claimed some 30 articles in Apple Daily played a “crucial part” in a conspiracy with governments abroad to impose sanctions on China and Hong Kong — sanctions that were in response to China’s suppression of democracy in Hong Kong. In an ominous turn, six of Apple Daily’s top executives recently pleaded guilty to the collusion charges and some might testify against Mr. Lai. Although the trial is expected to begin on Thursday due to legal wrangling regarding whether Mr. Lai could be represented by a British attorney, it may be delayed.

Apple Daily and Mr. Lai are not criminals. The attempt to extinguish this bright light of journalism and democracy illustrates once again the long shadow of intolerance and oppression that China’s Communist Party is casting over Hong Kong.

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