“A Time for Sacrifice”
Jordan J. Ballor | Jimmy Lai shows what real leadership looks like amid a Communist regime
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At its latest plenary meeting, the Central Committee of the Central Communist Party (CCP) of China (held from Nov. 8-11), passed a resolution recognizing current president and General Secretary Xi Jinping as a historical successor to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Xi has been cast as the leader of a third phase of Communist China’s history, one which sees Xi as leading the struggle against “bureaucratic capitalism.” But even as the CCP attempts to elevate Xi’s legacy and his historical significance, a true example of principled leadership languishes in a Chinese jail.
Jimmy Lai was a poor young man in Shanghai when he stole aboard a fishing junk and came to Hong Kong, where he became a factory worker. He learned that in Hong Kong, anything might be possible for someone willing to work for it. Lai eventually opened a small factory, then got into retailing, growing his operation into a successful international company. Lai later founded Apple Daily, a leading newspaper and media company in Hong Kong.
Jimmy Lai’s net worth has been estimated as more than $1 billion. Lai credits his success to the freedoms he enjoyed in Hong Kong, which were in sharp contrast to the situation on the mainland. Freedoms of assembly and speech, the rule of law and property rights, were the backdrop for a dynamic and vibrant economy. These conditions bequeathed by the British, says Lai, “let our resourcefulness flourish.”
Freedom is not just an abstract idea for Jimmy Lai. Lai’s Catholic faith is foundational to his understanding of how freedom is expressed in life. Pope John Paul II articulated the Christian view of freedom when he said that “freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Protestant Christians will disagree with the pope on a whole range of important matters, but on matters of human dignity and just political order, all branches of Christianity should affirm that rights such as the freedom of assembly, religion, and speech are fundamental for living a responsible life. And they are central to what made Jimmy Lai so successful in business. As he says of the freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong, “All I have, this place gave me.”
Christians understand that freedom is given to us ultimately by Christ and his sacrifice so that we in turn might serve God and neighbors. Christ has set us free, and it is a freedom that is so radical that it liberates us to serve others—even at great cost to ourselves. When China began cracking down on human rights and democracy in Hong Kong in 2019, Jimmy Lai intentionally set himself at the head of protests and opposition to CCP tyranny. He placed himself in danger, knowing that doing so could well cost him all the material and temporal goods he has enjoyed in life. Even so, he says, “This is a time for sacrifice.”
Jimmy Lai was arrested in August, 2020. After being held for more than a year, his trial began on Nov. 1. He is charged under the National Security Law, which went into effect in June of 2020. Lai is among a number of pro-democracy leaders being tried for participating in an unauthorized vigil memorializing the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists awarded Lai the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award for his commitment to democracy and free speech.
A new documentary film promises to chronicle Lai’s “fight for freedom,” but the end of the story has not yet been written. Perhaps Jimmy Lai will be released. He might spend the rest of his life in prison. But whatever happens, says Lai: “The future—which is unknown and uncertain—is still unknown for me but is certain.” This is what courage looks like.
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