On July 1, a controversial National Security Law went into effect in Hong Kong, having been imposed on the territory by Beijing, bypassing the Hong Kong legislature.
Under the new law, a person who is convicted of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces will receive a minimum of 10 years in prison, with the possibility of a life sentence.
Lai, a Catholic, is currently out on bail. McGurn said he thinks it is very likely that Lai will ultimately go to prison, and he thinks China will want to make an example of Lai— a prominent figure being marched out in handcuffs— in order to frighten people into compliance.
Despite this, McGurn said Lai’s arrest may very well have the opposite effect— it may galvanize ordinary pro-democracy Hong Kongers, Catholic or otherwise, to remain courageous as Lai did in the face of his captors.
McGurn pointed out that Lai, 71, could easily have fled the country and saved himself, but he chose to stay and face the consequences of his actions.
“Here's a millionaire, a billionaire, who doesn't have to be there. He could have run away and saved himself. He chose those handcuffs. That's my point. He chose the handcuffs, the way Christ accepted the cross,” McGurn said.
McGurn penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, in which he called Lai’s journalism “Hong Kong’s single most important counter to official propaganda” and compared his godson to St. Thomas More, who famously stuck to his principles in spite of tyrannical pressure from Henry VIII.
“In any just society, Jimmy Lai would not be threatened. But Hong Kong is no longer such a society,” McGurn wrote.
“In its place we are left with the powerful witness of a good man willing to give up everything except his principles, even if it means trading in the life of a billionaire for the prison cell of a Chinese dissident.”
Lai had come to Hong Kong at age 12 as a stowaway, penniless, from mainland China. McGurn said Lai saw a need for affordable, quality clothing for middle-class people, and thus founded a chain of clothing stores called Giordano’s— a venture which would make him rich.
McGurn’s work as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal brought him to Hong Kong for several years. When McGurn first met Lai in the 1980s, he said their families immediately bonded. Over the years, the McGurns and the Lais would become godparents to several of each others’ children. Lai’s wife, Teresa, came from a well-known Chinese Catholic family.
“He had always been kind of surrounded by Catholics. He liked them. He was comfortable with them,” McGurn said.
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McGurn said the first time he invited Lai to convert to the faith in 1997, Lai refused. McGurn was disappointed, but did not press the issue.
“And then three weeks later, he took me aside and he said he wanted to have Christ in his life,” McGurn said. Lai asked him to be his godfather.
McGurn said that period in 1997, right before the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, was a gloomy period, both in mood and weather-wise. But when Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong baptised Lai at the cathedral, “it really was a shaft of light breaking through the gloom.”
McGurn stressed that Lai’s conversion did not “teach” him his pro-democracy values— he had been an advocate for freedom and democracy for some time already— but his conversion brought him “into communion” with his wife, and with his many Catholic friends.
McGurn said he also believes that Lai’s Catholic faith is bringing him peace and comfort during his present ordeal.
“He's just accepted his destiny and I think he's accepted it in a Christian way. And in their family, they're talking about it in terms of love and repentance and love and forgiveness...he's a man who's facing this upheaval and is remarkably at peace with himself,” McGurn said .