Jimmy Lai

Will China silence Hong Kong voices?

Freedom Forum founder Al Neuharth interviewed Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai at the dawn of China’s takeover of Hong Kong. He couldn’t imagine anyone silencing the courageous journalist, but this week Lai’s voice was stilled when police arrested him as China cracks down on dissent. This column was originally published in USA TODAY on February 2, 1996.

Free enterprise and a free press have flourished here for 154 years under British rule. Will China clamp on communist controls after it reclaims Hong Kong July 1, 1997?

Critics claim many business leaders and publishers already are kowtowing to China with self-imposed controls or censorship in hopes of ingratiating themselves.

That was debated this week at a conference sponsored by The Freedom Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based international foundation, and the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong.

On one thing Asian and U.S. reps agreed: China will find it difficult to silence the voice of brilliant, brash Jimmy Lai, a wealthy former clothing manufacturer turned publisher.

Lai, 48, started a colorful new newspaper last June called Apple Daily. It looks a little like USA TODAY. But it reads more like the New York Post. Crime, political partisanship and sex are its staples. Apple Daily, already boasting 275,000 circulation, is the hottest of Hong Kong’s 15 Chinese-language newspapers.

The feisty Lai, featured speaker at the conference banquet, calls Chinese Premier Li Peng “a turtle egg with a zero IQ.” How does Lai think China’s leaders will treat him after July 1, 1997? “If they just threaten my business, I’ll stick around. If they threaten my life, I may leave.”

Those who think Lai’s publishing days are numbered say China won’t let the tail wag the dog. Populations:

  • Hong Kong: 6.2 million
  • China: 1.2 billion

My hunch: China will go easy on this golden goose. Even the Jimmy Lais are not necessarily dead ducks. Deng Xiaoping’s successors likely will tolerate a little criticism of their political and social standards, hoping Hong Kong will propel them toward the top of the world’s economic system.

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