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Hong Kong’s Jimmy Lai on life under new national security law

Hong Kong police arrested 16 people Wednesday, including two opposition lawmakers, on rioting charges from pro-democracy demonstrations last year. Beijing’s power to punish its critics is increased due to a new national security law allowing authorities to sentence demonstrators to life in prison. Nick Schifrin talks to Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media tycoon and the law’s most prominent target.

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  • Stephanie Sy:

    As we reported, there were more arrests in Hong Kong today, part of an ongoing campaign targeting pro-democracy activists.

    Beijing now has a powerful new weapon to punish its critics in Hong Kong: a national security law passed in late June that allows authorities to sentence demonstrators to life in prison.

    Nick Schifrin sits down with one of the law's most prominent targets.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Two months ago, Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong that promised to punish not only people for what they did, but also what they said. Anyone who participates in any action that calls for separating Hong Kong from China, anyone who receives support from a foreign country, even anyone who provokes hatred of Beijing can be arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

    The most prominent person arrested, 72-year-old Jimmy Lai, outspoken pro-democracy voice, billionaire media tycoon. He came to Hong Kong when he was 12, stowed away on a fishing boat, worked his way up from the bottom to found a clothing chain and then Hong Kong's largest newspaper.

    Earlier this month, Hong Kong police arrested him and frog-marched him through his own newsroom. He's now been accused of colluding with foreign countries.

    And now Jimmy Lai joins me from Hong Kong.

    Jimmy Lai, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    What is the message that Hong Kong police are trying to send to everyone when they arrest you so publicly?

  • Jimmy Lai:

    It probably is the intention of showing the teeth of the national security law, because they already have had a very powerful, intimidating effect in Hong Kong's resistance movement.

    A lot of those young people or even some of the older ones who were involved in the movement either have left or leaving. A lot of them who are staying have sidestepped the movement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    If that's the case of the impact of the crackdown by Beijing, what is the state of press freedom, what is the state of freedom of speech today in Hong Kong?

  • Jimmy Lai:

    As long as people are becoming more cautious, what they write, what they say, and in fear of violating the national security law, the freedom of speech is not there.

    Yes, we are still doing what we are supposed to do. But we don't know when there will be a clampdown again on us. So, just because of this apprehension has made the freedom of speech not so free.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you believe you were arrested because, last summer, you met with Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo?

  • Jimmy Lai:

    They are very strict about collusion with a foreign power.

    Even now, accepting your interview could be collusion with foreign power. So, I have to be cautious of what I say, you know? So this is the fact of life here now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you feel that you're already self-censoring?

  • Jimmy Lai:

    Well, no, no. If I'm self-censoring, I wouldn't accept the interview.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What can the U.S. do in order to try and guarantee that Hong Kong at least maintains some of its freedoms?

  • Jimmy Lai:

    If I tell you what they should do, I will be in violation of the national security law, which I will avoid.

    But I think the most important thing is, like, accepting your interview now. Hong Kong is a very unique place. People here share the same value as you guys in the U.S.

    We are very different from the Chinese in China, because they have a totally different value. We have a value as the legacy of our past colonial time. The British did not give us democracy, but the British gave us the rule of law, the private property, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of religion.

    If the American people know that we are being attacked, they can resonate with us, and the support will be very important to us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Beijing says that it passed the national security law because it needed to because of violence last year in Hong Kong. We did see violence in protests.

    I have to ask, were you at any point during some of these violent protests worried about security being eroded in Hong Kong?

  • Jimmy Lai:

    Well, I was worried about the violence, because violence is not our power. We can't be more violent than the CCP, who has guns and tanks.

    Our power is our moral authority. We have to stay in the nonviolent and peaceful resistance.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, finally, Jimmy Lai, you are, as we talked about earlier, accused of colluding with a foreign power.

    Are you resigned, on a personal level, to being found guilty and spending a long time, even perhaps the rest of your life, in prison?

  • Jimmy Lai:

    I don't think about this, because I don't want to put the psychological burden on myself until the time comes.

    You know, I'm not worried, just because, if my life is about myself, it would be meaningless. Only when I detach from myself and thinking of my life is about something bigger, and not about myself, that my life becomes meaningful. And that makes me going every day.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jimmy Lai, joining us from Hong Kong, thank you very much.

  • Jimmy Lai:

    Thank you.

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