Why you should care

Because shouldn’t all noble causes have a billionaire media mogul on their side? 

In Hong Kong, a Communist-controlled city that boasts an unusually broad freedom of the press and where corporations help choose half of its leaders, perhaps it’s appropriate that democracy’s strongest advocate is a media tycoon. Jimmy Lai, a Chinese-born business titan who presides over a pro-democracy media empire there, finds himself at the center of an escalating battle between the city and mainland China, between capitalism and communism, and between self-determination and party rule. But if the residents of Hong Kong succeed in carving out a more democratic future for their city, the popular magnate turned protester is well-placed to play an oversize role in its fruition — and capture an oversize share of its fruit.

Hong Kong has long been regarded as a global economic hub and business-friendly region — very friendly. The city, nominally free to rule itself under the “One Country, Two Systems” model since reverting back to Chinese rule in 1997, has not only low taxes, but also an electoral system that is the envy of business elites the world over. That’s because the human inhabitants of Hong Kong elect only half of its Legislative Council members, with the remaining seats largely determined by companies — run by wealthy industrialists like Lai.

From the start, the loud, confrontational Lai used his perch in the media to foment dissent.

But true authority in Hong Kong is overwhelmingly concentrated in its chief executive, selected by a committee of unelected officials from a slate of candidates hand-picked by China’s ruling Communist Party — reducing the election to more of a prix fixe party menu than a genuine democratic process. And so when China issued an edict last August reaffirming its authority to pick those candidates, a sleepy democratic movement sprang into action. What ensued — pro-democracy sit-ins by hundreds of thousands of mostly student protesters — caught the world’s attention. It was dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution,” after one method that protesters used to shield themselves from police pepper spray.

Demonstrators pushed to reform how Hong Kong’s leader is chosen in a battle for democracy that will likely play out over decades in a city where 20 percent of residents live under the poverty line while its wealthiest 50 individuals are worth close to $250 billion. Which is why seeing one billionaire (even if he does not crack that Top 50) mingling with the protesters on a daily basis, getting smacked with a tear gas canister and even detained when the camp was cleared, may seem surprising. Until you learn a bit more about Lai.

Now 66, Lai arrived in Hong Kong in 1960 from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, a 12-year-old dropout from a well-off family that lost everything when the Communist Party came to power in China. Lai worked at a knitwear factory, teaching himself English during his spare time before eventually landing a job as an office clerk, starting his first business — a clothing retailer called Giordano — at age 27.

Jimmy Lai

Jimmy Lai leaves the Wan Chai Police Station in Hong Kong on Jan. 21, 2015. Lai had been summoned over offenses relating to the mass protests that shut down parts of the city in late 2014.

Source Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty

The ambitious entrepreneur — once described as “off-beat and quirky” and “a portly man who prefers blue jeans, suspenders, and bicycle caps to sober suits and ties” — moved into media in the 1990s, starting a Chinese-language tabloid called Apple Daily and a magazine, Next, for which he still writes a weekly column. From the start, the loud, confrontational Lai used his media perch to foment dissent, famously calling then-Premier Li Peng “a turtle’s egg with a zero IQ” in a 1994 column and going so far as to suggest that he “drop dead.”

Such high jinks have prompted critics to label Lai as an opportunist who uses his Next Media empire to exploit, and even manufacture, crises in order to capture the benefits flowing from them. And Lai’s financial support of the Occupy protesters helps his bottom line by making noise and selling more papers, Michael Tien, a pro-China legislator, told the New York Times.

Next Media didn’t respond to requests for comment. But others, including Sonny Lo, a professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, don’t question Lai’s commitment to democracy. He argues the mogul invested in mass media because he saw it as “a battlefield where democracy can take root.” As Lo tells OZY, “The profits his media organizations generated might not be so lucrative as his critics imagine because he did sacrifice his time, energy and resources by supporting the Hong Kong democracy movement.”

Indeed, if anything, Lai’s politics have consistently undermined his bottom line, starting in the 1990s, when China closed his Giordano outlets, investigated him for tax avoidance and pressured investors to stay away from Next Media; to recent months, during which his offices have been ransacked, his home firebombed, his files hacked and a false obituary published claiming he had died from AIDS.

“If I really treated business like a businessman, I wouldn’t have done what I have done — opposing China,” Lai recently stated in The New York Times. Still, he knows the power of media — and of perception, which is one reason he resigned in December as chairman of Next Media, claiming that the “more I’m in the front of the movement, the less appropriate that I should be so closely connected with our media.” Lai still owns almost 75 percent of the conglomerate, though, and you can be sure his influence will continue to be felt even as he lowers his profile.

And Lai, like the students and other protesters, is in it for the long haul. “It’s going to be a very long fight for democracy,” he has said. “You can’t expect that one sit-in will get you democracy.”

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