David Cameron urged to tell China to free Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai | Hong Kong
Foreign secretary David Cameron is being urged to demand the release of newspaper tycoon Jimmy Lai as the British national prepares for a high-profile trial in Hong Kong this month.
Lai, 76, is facing a life sentence, accused of colluding with foreign forces under the draconian national security law introduced by Beijing in 2020 following mass protests.
His son Sebastien has demanded that Cameron, who has faced controversy over his links to China, “stand by my father’s side”. He has been seeking a meeting with the foreign secretary about his father’s plight.
A call by Cameron for his father’s release would send a clear message to China, Sebastien believes. “I have no doubt that Lord Cameron will do right by his country and its citizens,” he said.
Previously the foreign secretary has faced scrutiny about his links to China. The Observer reported last month that Cameron faced calls for full disclosure of his financial interests after questions over his work for Chinese-linked projects.
In September, Cameron spoke at two events in the United Arab Emirates to promote Sri Lanka’s Port City Colombo, an infrastructure project supported by Chinese investment.
The Sri Lankan press reported that Cameron was paid $210,000 (about £167,000) to speak. But a source close to Cameron said his office did not recognise the figures cited.
Jimmy Lai was arrested in August 2020 when Hong Kong police raided the offices of his newspaper, Apple Daily, which had infuriated China by supporting pro-democracy protests.
The European parliament has demanded his release and Washington has criticised a previous conviction of Lai on fraud charges.
At the time of Lai’s arrest, Sebastien was visiting Taiwan, where he now lives, and his father told him not to return to the former British colony. Jimmy Lai has been held in solitary confinement ever since.
Sebastien, 29, said: “It has been made very clear to me that it is not safe for me to return to Hong Kong.
“This is a man who is obviously strong, but nothing can be taken for granted at his age. I can only imagine what it is like being in solitary confinement for more than 1,000 days.”
Since he entered the then British colony as a 12-year-old stowaway, Jimmy Lai has become one of Hong Kong’s success stories. After making his fortune in the rag trade, Lai founded a series of magazines in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, before starting the tabloid-style Apple Daily in 1995. Its closure sounded the death knell of the free press in Hong Kong and the pro-democracy movement.
Sebastien Lai has acted as an advocate and envoy on behalf of his father, whose trial is due to start on 18 December and is scheduled to last 80 days, but has been previously adjourned. However, his father’s UK legal team has been denied access to Lai and subjected to cyber-attacks.
Sebastien Lai said he had been asking to meet the foreign secretary since July 2022. He added: “Lord Cameron is now the third foreign secretary that has received my request, and the third foreign secretary not to respond to it. I have met foreign ministers from other countries, but I have yet to meet with one from the UK.”
A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) spokesperson said: “British national Jimmy Lai’s case is a priority for HMG, which has been raised on multiple occasions with the Chinese government, most recently when the foreign secretary spoke to Wang Yi this week.
“Mr Lai’s prosecution has been highly politicised – he and others are being deliberately targeted to silence criticism under the guise of national security.”
FCDO sources said that Cameron would be happy to meet with Sebastien when he is in London.