2 British firms helped UK-based Hong Kong activists campaign for city, court hears in Jimmy Lai trial

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2 British firms helped UK-based Hong Kong activists campaign for city, court hears in Jimmy Lai trial

A key prosecution witness in the national security trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai has named two British public relations agencies as helping UK-based Hong Kong activists campaign and meet with politicians in the wake of the 2019 protests and unrest.

The UK Houses of Parliament in London. File photo: Alan Cleaver, via Flickr CC2.0.

Andy Li, one of 12 Hongkongers caught by Chinese coastguard in August 2020, testified on Friday that UK firms 89Up and Whitehouse Consultancy – both of which specialise in media relations and political communications – had assisted political campaigns led by Finn Lau.

Li said Whitehouse Consultancy linked the activists with British lawmakers to raise awareness of the city’s human rights situation, and arranged a joint statement issued in May 2020 led by former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, against an imminent national security law, which Beijing imposed in June.

“[Whitehouse Consultancy] arranged for [Lau] and his UK-side members to meet with MPs… and later in November 2019, during Hong Kong’s district council election, they also used their connections to send people over to observe the race,” Li told the court in Cantonese on the 46th day of the trial.

“As for the [statement] with Chris Patten, that was around May 2020 when rumours of a national security law were mounting, they issued the joint statement… saying that [the security law] would be inconsistent with the joint declaration,” he added.

Chris Patten. File photo: Supplied.
Chris Patten. File photo: Supplied.

Signed in 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was a treaty signed between China and Britain that stipulates Hong Kong’s way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years after it returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Li has pleaded guilty to conspiring to collude with foreign forces over his role in an international campaign to call for foreign sanctions against the city and its officials, which prosecutors alleged was ultimately instructed and financed by Lai.

Lai, 76, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of conspiring to collude with foreign forces, as well as one count of conspiring to publish “seditious” materials under colonial-era legislation. If convicted, he faces spending the rest of his life in jail.

Lead prosecutor Anthony Chau on Friday scrutinised Li’s bank statements and payment records related to a crowdfunding campaign in July 2019 that helped Lau’s activist group to place advertisements in major newspapers in the UK.

Hong Kong activist Andy Li. File photo: Screenshot via Youtube.
Hong Kong activist Andy Li. File photo: Screenshot via Youtube.

Li said he was not aware what Lau was campaigning for, as he was only responsible for the crowdfunding aspect, adding that he only knew it was related to the 1984 joint declaration.

The group had originally intended to use his bank account for crowdfunding, Li said, since he had already managed funds from a campaign the previous month, which saw ads placed in major newspapers around the world to raise international awareness about the protests in Hong Kong.

However, Jack Hazlewood, who Li later knew as a writer for Lai’s paper Apple Daily, eventually managed the fund because the crowdfunding platform required a UK-based bank account in pound sterling. Li added that he was not certain who introduced him to Hazlewood.

A bank statement showed that a sum of about £300,000 (HK$2.99 million) was transferred to Li from Hazlewood in August 2019.

Transaction records showed that around £100,000 (HK$997,712) was paid to various British newspapers including The Evening Standard and The Guardian. Li said the remaining sum from the crowdfunding proceeds was used to support Lau and his group in the UK.

The posters about the eight democrats wanted by the national security police on a notice board
Wanted posters for eight overseas Hong Kong activists on a notice board at Wah Fu Estate in Hong Kong, on July 27, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

That included payments made to 89Up and Whitehouse Consultancy spanning from July 2019 to February 2020, which Li said were consultancy fees.

Lau is among 13 Hong Kong activists with a HK$1 million bounty on his head after national security police in the city issued arrest warrants for overseas democrats over alleged national security offences.

Margaret Thatcher photograph

Separately, Li said he was also involved in liaising with Apple Daily about the use of a historical photograph of former British leader Margaret Thatcher taken during negotiations for the joint declaration.

He said he approached Chan Tsz-wah, another defendant turned prosecution witness in the trial, to contact the newspaper about a request to use the photograph for the advertising campaign in the UK in July 2019.

Detained Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai. File photo: Studio Incendo.
Detained Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai. File photo: Studio Incendo.

“Chan told me that he would bring this up when he had a meal with Mr Lai – I don’t recall whether he said Mr Lai or ‘Fatty Lai’ – then the coming Thursday… that’s when I knew Chan could have a meal with Mr Lai,” Li said. It was the first time he had mentioned Lai since he began his testimony on Wednesday.

Prosecutors in their opening statement alleged that Lai was the “mastermind and financial supporter” of a campaign to lobby for foreign sanctions on the city and on China.

Li and 11 others were intercepted by Chinese coastguard on a speedboat in August 2020, after which Li served seven months in a mainland Chinese prison, where he was allegedly “tortured” before he was transferred back to the city in March 2021 and charged under the security law.

An international legal team for Lai in January told the UN Human Rights Council that there were “grave concerns… as to whether [Li’s] testimony was procured through torture and coercion.”

A Correctional Services Department vehicle outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on December 18, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
A Correctional Services Department vehicle outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on December 18, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The trial, which is expected to last 80 days, continues on Monday.

Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution in June 2020 following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts – broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers and led to hundreds of arrests amid new legal precedents, while dozens of civil society groups disappeared. The authorities say it restored stability and peace to the city, rejecting criticism from trade partners, the UN and NGOs.

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