Lai Chee-Ying (Chinese: 黎智英), known professionally as Jimmy Lai, is a Hong Kong entrepreneur. He founded Giordano, an Asian clothing retailer, Next Digital (formerly Next Media), a Hong Kong-listed media company, and popular newspaper Apple Daily. He is one of the main contributors to the pro-democracy camp, especially to the Democratic Party.
A prominent critic of Beijing, Lai was arrested on 10 August 2020 by the Hong Kong police on "charges of violating the territory's new national security law."
Lai was born in Guangzhou, China in December 1948. At the age of 12, he entered Hong Kong as a stowaway on a boat. Upon his arrival, Lai began work as a child-laborer in a garment factory for a wage of $8 per month.
Founding of Giordano
Lai's factory work saw him rise to the position of factory manager. In 1975, Lai used his year-end bonus on Hong Kong stocks to raise cash and bought out the owners of a bankrupt garment factory, Comitex, where he began producing sweaters. Customers included J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, and other U.S. retailers.
By rewarding sellers with financial incentives in Hong Kong, he built the chain into an Asia-wide retailer. Giordano was said to have more than 8,000 employees in 2,400 shops across 30 countries worldwide.
Lai pioneered a reader-centric philosophy with paparazzi journalism in Hong Kong based on publications such as USA Today and The Sun. His best-selling Next Magazine and Apple Daily newspaper, featured a mix of racy tabloid material and news items oriented to the mass market with plenty of colour and graphics that attracts a wide range of readers, some of whom are also critics of Lai and his ideology.
Hong Kong publications
Owing to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Lai became an advocate of democracy and critic of the People's Republic of China government. He began publishing Next Magazine, which combined tabloid sensationalism with hard-hitting political and business reporting. He proceeded to found other magazines, including Sudden Weekly (忽然一週), Eat & Travel Weekly (飲食男女), Trading Express/Auto Express (交易通/搵車快線) and the youth-oriented Easy Finder (壹本便利).
In 1995, as the Hong Kong handover approached, Lai founded Apple Daily, a newspaper start-up that he financed with $100 million of his own money. The newspaper's circulation rose to 400,000 copies by 1997, which was the territory's second largest among 60 other newspapers. According to Lai, he aspired to maintain freedom of speech in Hong Kong through Apple Daily. In addition to promoting democracy, Lai's publications often ruffled feathers of fellow Hong Kong tycoons by exposing their personal foibles and relations with local government.
In 2003, ahead of the record-breaking pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong during July, the cover of Next Magazine featured a photo-montage of the territory's embattled chief executive Tung Chee-Hwa taking a pie in the face. The magazine urged readers to take to the streets while Apple Daily distributed stickers calling for Tung to resign.
In 2006, Sudden Weekly and Next Magazine ranked first and second in circulation for Hong Kong's magazine market. Apple Daily became the No. 2 newspaper in Hong Kong.
In 2020, Lai launched an English version of Apple Daily.
Lai launched Taiwanese editions of Next Magazine in 2001 and Apple Daily in 2003, taking on heavily established rivals who made considerable effort to thwart him. Rival publishers pressed advertisers to boycott and distributors not to undertake home delivery. His Taiwan offices were vandalised on numerous occasions. As the publications grew to have the largest readership in their category, the advertising boycotts ended.
In October 2006, Lai launched Sharp Daily (Shuang Bao in Mandarin), a free daily newspaper targeting Taipei commuters. The company also launched Me! Magazine in Taiwan.
In building Taiwan's most popular newspaper, Apple Daily, and magazine, Next Magazine, Lai's racy publications were described as having a great impact on the country's hitherto staid media culture.
Lai's publications remained banned in China since their inception. The ban originated from Lai's 1994 newspaper column, where he told Premier of the PRC Li Peng, seen as a driving force behind the Tiananmen Square crackdown, to "drop dead". He also called the Communist Party of China "a monopoly that charges a premium for lousy service". China's government retaliated against Lai by starting a shut-down of Giordano shops, prompting him to sell out of the company he founded in order to save it. In addition to having his publications banned in China, businesses had distanced themselves from placing advertisements in Apple Daily to avoid retaliation from the Chinese government.
Lai had frequently faced hostility from the many Beijing-backed tycoons, including attempts to force supplier boycotts of his companies. Major Hong Kong property developers and top companies advertised only in competing publications not owned by Lai. He also faced a lengthy battle to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which Lai sidestepped through a reverse takeover. He managed to list the company in 1999 by acquiring Paramount Publishing Group in October of that year.
During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, Lai started an Internet-based grocery retailer that offered home delivery services, adMart. The business expanded its product scope beyond groceries to include electronics and office supplies, but was shut down after losing between $100 and $150 million. Lai attributed this business failure to overconfidence and a lack of viable business strategy.
In 2011, Next Media reportedly sold 70% stake of Next Media's subsidiary Colored World Holdings (CWH, incorporated in the British Virgin Islands) to Sum Tat Ventures (STV, incorporated in the British Virgin Islands), a private company 100% owned by Jimmy Lai. CWH was estimated to have net asset value of US$6.1 million. STV paid US$100 million in cash for 70% stake of CWH. In 2013, STV paid another US$20 million in cash for the remaining 30% stake of CWH. CWH itself had its assets sold in 2011, and ceased operation in 2011. In total, STV paid US$120 million in cash for CWH. On Lai's Form 3B disclosure form, STV is listed as having the same correspondence address as Next Media in Hong Kong.
Near the end of 2013, Lai spent approximately US$73 million (or NT$2.3 billion) to purchase 2% stake (~17 million shares) in Taiwanese electronics manufacturer HTC.
Lai is a longtime champion of the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong. According to Lai, his reading of The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek inspired him to fight for the pursuit of freedom. His advocacy had been expressed through his business ventures, such as distributing Giordano t-shirts with portraits of student leaders. His high-profile support for the pro-democracy movements came under strong condemnation from the Chinese government.
On 13 December 2014, Lai was one of the pro-democracy leaders arrested during the clearance of the Admiralty protest site of the Umbrella Movement. On the following day, Lai announced he would step down as head of Next Media "to spend more time with his family and further pursue his personal interests."
Lai had been the target of hostile attacks and disturbances, including machetes, axes and threatening messages left in his driveway. He had been rammed by a car, and his home was firebombed several times, most recently in 2019. Next Media spokesman Mark Simon condemned these attacks and stated, "This is a continual effort to intimidate the press in Hong Kong. This is raw and pure intimidation." Some activists felt that the Hong Kong Police Force and the Hong Kong government, which had been Chinese-controlled since the handover in 1997, did not always follow up on these misconducts against Lai, and that culprits are rarely found.
During the early hours of 12 January 2015, two masked men hurled petrol bombs at Lai's home on Kadoorie Avenue in Kowloon Tong. At the same time, a petrol bomb was thrown at the Next Media headquarters in Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate. The fires were extinguished by security guards. The perpetrators fled and two cars used in the attacks were found torched in Shek Kip Mei and Cheung Sha Wan. The crimes were denounced as an "attack on press freedom".
On 28 February 2020, Lai was arrested for illegal assembly during his attendance in the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests. He also faced one charge of intimidation using foul language towards a reporter in 2017. His case was scheduled to be heard at Eastern Law Court on 5 May. On 18 April, Lai was among the 15 high-profile democracy figures arrested in Hong Kong. According to a police statement, his arrest was based on suspicion of organizing, publicizing or taking part in several unauthorized assemblies between August and October 2019.
National security law and arrest
On 30 June 2020, the Hong Kong national security law was enacted by China's parliament, by-passing the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. Before the law was enacted, Lai called it "a death knell for Hong Kong" and alleged that it would destroy the territory's rule of law.
On 10 August 2020, Lai was arrested at his home for alleged collusion with foreign forces (a crime under the new national security law) as well as fraud. Other Next Digital staff were also arrested, and police searched the home of both Lai and his son. Later in the morning, approximately 200 Hong Kong police officers raided the offices of Apple Daily in Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate, seizing around 25 boxes of materials.
The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, an agency of mainland China, welcomed the arrest and called for Lai to be severely punished. However, the day's events were widely viewed as an attack on the free press. The Hong Kong Journalists Association described the raid as "horrendous" and unprecedented in Hong Kong. The Democratic Party accused the government of trying to create a chilling effect in the Hong Kong media industry. Former governor Chris Patten called the events "the most outrageous assault yet" on Hong Kong's press. The head of the University of Hong Kong journalism department called the raid an "outrageous, shameful attack on press freedom".
Other pro-democracy figures were arrested for national security crimes on the same day, including Agnes Chow, Wilson Li, and Andy Li, and at least four others.