Billionaire accused of participating in pro-democray protests
Jimmy Lai, the billionaire tycoon behind Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Vintage Hotels, has been arrested in Hong Kong, accused of participating in pro-democracy demonstrations last year.
Lai, 71, the twin brother of NOTL’s Si Wai Lai, was released on bail and is scheduled to appear in court in May.
The crackdown is “obviously politically motivated,” says Bob Jackson, CEO of Vintage Hotels.
“This isn’t anything new to us. Mr. Lai has been a democracy proponent for many, many years and as such has been a target of the Chinese government,” Jackson said in an interview.
He actually was arrested twice in the past two months related to protests on different dates in 2019. His first arrest came a little over a week after Lai wrote a Feb. 19 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece headlined “China’s facade of stability.”
In the past, Lai has been teargassed and his house has been firebombed, Jackson said.
“Not to minimize it but this is the risk he takes given his political views. It’s a view that China does not like and it’s obviously politically motivated. Mr. Lai understands that,” Jackson said.
“Everything is fairly choreographed in terms of what they do over there. They kind of play to the Communist base and Mr. Lai gets caught up in this. He’s a man of principle and that’s not going to change.”
Vintage Hotels operates the Prince of Wales, Queen’s Landing, the Pillar and Post, and other luxury properties in NOTL and around Ontario. Lai visits NOTL a couple of times a year, Jackson said. In Hong Kong, among Lai's holdings is the Apple Daily, a prominent pro-democracy tabloid newspaper.
Media in Hong Kong reported he was among 15 people, including a well-respected lawyer and several activists, who were rounded up on April 18 on suspicion of organizing, publicizing or taking part in several unauthorized assemblies in August and October 2019, according to a police statement.
Lai's latest arrest has provoked strong reactions in Canada, Hong Kong and internationally.
Canada’s foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne, issued a statement April 19 expressing concern about the arrests connected to “popular demonstrations that took place last year” and said the arrest “calls for close scrutiny.”
He noted that with “hundreds of thousands of Canadians living in Hong Kong, we have a vested interest in Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity — the foundation of which is its relative autonomy and basic freedoms.”
Champagne urged “all sides” to address the “legitimate concerns expressed during the 2019 protests.”
His comments drew a loud rebuke from the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, accusing the Canadian government of “gross interference in China’s internal affairs” over the arrest of the “rabble-rousers.”
Also arrested with Lai were prominent lawyers Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, which prompted the London-based International Bar Association to call for all charges to immediately be dropped.
The South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, reported that Lai has refused comment on the allegations.
However, Mark Simon, an executive with the tycoon’s Next Digital Group, said the charges showed that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing and the Hong Kong government just want “to stir the pot.”