"The way I look at it, if I suffer for the right cause, it only defines the person I am becoming. It can only be good for me to become a better person. If you believe in the Lord, if you believe that all suffering has a reason, and the Lord is suffering with me...I'm at peace with it."
A band of nearly 200 police officers arrested Lai on Aug. 10, along with at least nine others connected to Apple Daily, the newspaper Lai founded in 1995, as part of an apparent crackdown on civil liberties in the island territory.
Apple Daily has distinguished itself over the years as a strongly pro-democracy publication critical of the Chinese government in Beijing.
Lai is out on bail, but faces charges under Hong Kong’s new national security law, which took effect July 1, when it was imposed on the territory by the Chinese Communist Party, 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 came to Hong Kong at age 12 as a stowaway, penniless, from mainland China. His mother spent the early years of Lai’s life in a labor camp. In Hong Kong, Lai saw a need for affordable, quality clothing for middle-class people, and founded a chain of clothing stores called Giordano’s— a venture which would make him rich, and allow him to launch pro-democracy magazines and newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Lai is a British citizen, but he said he does not plan to leave Hong Kong. He said his family is very supportive of his decision to stay, but he fears for their safety.
"If I go away, I not only give up my destiny, I give up God, I give up my religion, I give up what I believe in," he said.
"I am what I am. I am what I believe. I cannot change it. And if I can't change it, I have to accept my fate with praise."
Lai said his wife has always been a pious Catholic, and even before his conversion he always went to church with her. But in 1997, he realized that he needed the protection and help of a higher power. He was baptized and received into the Church by Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has historically enjoyed freedom of religion, unlike mainland China, where religious believers of all stripes endure persecution. The Catholic Church in China has since 1951 been split between the so-called underground church, which is persecuted and loyal to Rome, and the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Church.
Lai said China needs moral leadership from the Vatican, but he expressed disappointment in the Vatican’s negotiations with CCP, particularly the Sept. 2018 agreement between the Vatican and the CCP on the appointment of bishops, which the two parties are expected to renew later this month.
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Cardinal Zen recently traveled to the Vatican to ask Pope Francis not to renew the Vatican-China deal, but Pope Francis did not grant Zen an audience.
The Vatican’s power is moral and virtuous rather than temporal, Lai said. The Vatican should uphold moral values when they need it the most, he added.
When the pope and the Vatican remain silent on the CCP’s actions, "that is very disappointing, very damaging, for a world that looks up to the Vatican for their moral leadership.”
Lai said in his opinion, the West erroneously thinks of China that "the richer they become, the more they will be like us."
But values are important, Lai said, and the CCP's behavior is threatening Christian values, extending their influence into international spheres like Hollywood and professional sports.
The COVID-19 pandemic, Lai said, is a "Pearl Harbor event" for the world, which ought to shake the world out of complacency.