Ex-US president Trump’s praise of Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai flagged by prosecutors at nat. security trial

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Ex-US president Trump’s praise of Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai flagged by prosecutors at nat. security trial

Hong Kong prosecutors have pointed to ex-US president Donald Trump’s praise of detained media mogul Jimmy Lai almost four years ago in his national security trial.

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

Ivan Cheung, a lead prosecutor, presented to the court on Monday a series of tweets and reports published by the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper from August 2020. In them, Trump called the paper’s founder Lai a “brave man” following his arrest on suspicion of breaching the national security law Beijing imposed in June that year.

The prosecutor highlighted a Chinese-language article published on August 21 that year, which read: “[Lai] thanked Trump on Twitter, stating that Hong Kong could not be successful without freedom, and could no longer be an international financial centre.”

“It was because Trump said [it] publicly at a press conference, and that foreign media had also reported on the matter,” said former associate publisher Chan Pui-man in Cantonese. She has pleaded guilty to conspiring to collude with foreign forces and now acts as a prosecution witness.

Donald Trump. Photo: The White House, via Flickr CC2.0.
Donald Trump. Photo: The White House, via Flickr CC2.0.

“Our digital instant news had also covered the matter, therefore the newspaper followed up on the next day,” Chan said on the 32th day of trial at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building.

Lai, 76, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of conspiring to collude with foreign forces under the security law and one count of conspiring to publish “seditious” materials under colonial-era legislation.

The prosecution is seeking to build a case that the media mogul intended, through the Apple Daily tabloid as a platform, to draw US sanctions on mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials in the wake of the Beijing-imposed security law.

Sanction list

The court was earlier shown WhatsApp messaging records in July 2020 when Lai asked Chan to come up with a “shit-list,” which the latter said referred to a list of potential targets for sanctions.

See also: Jimmy Lai continued ‘live chats’ with US guests despite staff concerns over security law, court hears

Cheung on Monday drew the court’s attention to an article published on July 18 that year titled: “Trump has something up his sleeve, scale of strike will be escalated anytime.”

He questioned why the article appeared to have not included the source of information as opposed to the paper’s other coverage.

Apple Daily
Apple Daily’s final edition dated June 24, 2021. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Chan said the article was a supplement to the front-page Apple Daily story that day, which cited Bloomberg in suggesting that the US would impose sanctions against Han Zheng, at the time Beijing’s top man on Hong Kong and Macau affairs, then-chief executive Carrie Lam, and then-police commissioner Chris Tang.

“Mr Lai was very concerned about the names on the sanction list,” she said. “He, in his wording, asked us to ‘suggest’ names, if I remember correctly.”

“But I soon realised we could not possibly suggest names. However, the Bloomberg report said it had understood these names [would appear on the list], and it’s okay for us to cite Bloomberg.”

Chan added the angle of the article was consistent with Lai’s view on US sanctions at the time.

Angle of coverage

Separately, the prosecution took aim at the angle of Apple Daily’s coverage in a series of reports published from 2019 onwards.

In one example, published on September 1, 2019, Apple Daily ran a front-page article about an incident happened at the Prince Edward MTR station the previous night, when riot police stormed the station and pepper-sprayed people in carriages following hours of protest clashes.

august 31 china extradition
Prince Edward MTR station on August 31, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Chan said the story, titled “MTR manhunt leads to Yuen Long terror attack 2.0,” was following an editorial angle that questioned whether the police had used excessive force that night.

But judge Alex Lee, one of the three, handpicked national security judges hearing the case, said the headline was more of a statement rather than a question, to which Chan agreed.

Chan also said editorial staff at Apple Daily did not change their angle of reportage after Lai was arrested in August 2020 and later remanded in custody in December that year.

She said colleagues who visited Lai in custody, including herself, had relayed their boss’s messages to other staff. Lai was said to have called on his employees to “hang on” and to “carry on” from behind bars.

Apple Daily's ex-associate publisher Chan Pui-man. Photo: Kenny Huang/Studio Incendo.
Apple Daily’s ex-associate publisher Chan Pui-man. Photo: Kenny Huang/Studio Incendo.

She added that the newspaper had considered replacing certain wording in their coverage and had enacted heightened caution in reporting sanctions-related news after the imposition of the national security law.

But the editorial policy did not change, since Lai did not give instructions otherwise, she said.

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

Chan is one of six senior Apple Daily employees who pleaded guilty to conspiring to collude with foreign forces in November 2022. They will be sentenced after Lai’s trial, which is expected to last 80 days.

The prosecution is expected to put their final questions to Chan when the trial resumes on Tuesday. The defence is set to begin their cross examination immediately afterwards.

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