In Hong Kong right now, Jimmy Lai is sacrificing all — his fortune and possibly his life — for his God, his fellow man, and for freedom.
Lai is a billionaire, although he wasn’t always one. Born two years before the Communists defeated the nationalists in China’s civil war, his father fled and his mother was sent to a labor camp when he was a young child. Carrying bags for train passengers and getting by as a street vendor, he first tasted freedom when a man from British Hong Kong gave him a bar of chocolate.
Lai is a British citizen, although he wasn’t always one. Having seen a glimpse of prosperity and freedom, he chased it to the then-free British island colony, stowing away aboard a ship when he was just 12 years old and working on the floor of a clothing factory.
Lai is a Catholic, although he wasn’t always one. He met the faith through his wife, a pious woman he accompanied to church, where he heard the homilies of Cardinal Joseph Zen and in 1997 was baptized into the church by the same great man.
Today Lai is in a prison cell in Hong Kong, and the Communist dictatorship has once again seized one of his life’s works, shutting down his newspaper. But of all that has changed since he was a young boy, persecution by the communists has remained a constant. If you stand by your faith, in China there’s no way around it. “I have a soul,” he said in early 2019, and so the truth lives in him.
“No one can say we didn’t fight… Prison life is the pinnacle of my life. I am completely at peace.”
Lai’s path to success in Hong Kong began on the floor of a garment factory. He rose quickly, eventually joining management. He saved his money, invested in the stock market, and used the profits to buy a factory and start making clothing for middle-class consumers.
After the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, where peaceful pro-democracy protesters were trapped, shrouded in darkness, and run over and gunned down by tanks, Lai sacrificed his stake in his mainland business by printing and selling pro-democracy shirts and starting a tabloid magazine that covered scandal and corruption in the party.
Undeterred by his loss, and still a very wealthy man, Lai channeled his time and fortune toward fighting their evil, enduring arrest, persecution, fire bombings, car attacks, and intimidation for it. Last week he was arrested again, and his and his company’s finances seized under the auspices of China’s new “national security law.”
Stories of his self-made riches and pro-democracy bravery dot corporate media, but unless you dig into the columns of those who’d met him, or read Christian news sources, you might miss what actually drives and fortifies him in the face of a vast and relentless enemy. You’d miss why a serial entrepreneur who has spent his life building and creating is willing to give it all, and you’d miss the truth behind why.
“The Communists,” he told Economic Strategy Institute President Clyde Berkowitz, “think they can buy and or intimidate everyone off, create their own reality, and write their own history. Effectively, they assume the role of God. They are kind of a religion or an anti-religion.”
‘They have initiation into the party as a kind of baptism. They have self-criticism as a kind of confession of sins, re-education as a kind of penance, and elevation to hero of the party as a kind of sainthood. And, of course, at least Mao [Zedong] has a kind of everlasting life as a photo smiling down on Tiananmen Square and as an embalmed corpse in a casket in the square.’
‘But the party and its members do not have souls. In fact, they are dead men walking, because the truth is not in them.’
“Life,” he told the Catholic Napa Institute in an October interview, “is more than just bread; life has a greater meaning.”
He’s right, and a lot of Christians understand this on its face, but what makes Lai different from a lot of us is while it’s easy to nod and to agree, it’s entirely another to act. We read Christ’s command to sell all of our possessions and follow him, and a lot of us give of our time and our money, some very generously, but how many give it all?
We know that the martyrs and saints suffered and for their courage on earth are saved. We might hope and pray to have their courage if ever put to the test, but until we are we never truly know if we will — so many don’t. We know that suffering has a purpose, that it sharpens and tests our characters, and that it should be offered up to God, but have you ever tried? It can be done, but it is very, very difficult to lift up your heart while your body and mind drag you back down to the temporal things torturing them.
“Here is my body, take it!” the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen preached on Good Friday, 1979. “Here is my soul, my will, my energy, my strength, my poverty, my wealth — all that I have. It is yours, take it! Consecrate it! Offer it! Offer it to the Heavenly Father with yourself, in order that he, looking down on this great sacrifice, may see only you, his beloved Son, in whom he is well pleased. Transmute the poor bread of my life into your life; thrill the wine of my wasted life into your divine Spirit; unite my broken heart with your Heart; change my cross into a crucifix.”
“If you believe in the Lord,” Lai told the Napa Institute, “if you believe that all suffering has a reason, and the Lord is suffering with me, it will definitely define the person I am becoming so I am at peace with it.”
“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.”
But how many actually do? How many American leaders, how many corporate businessmen, do just that? How many executives at Disney and Nike, the NBA and Blizzard Entertainment, in Apple and Hollywood do just that? Maybe no other alive.
Instead, how many of them bow before a thieving, lying, murderous godless slave state in exchange for access to growing markets? How many colleges and universities bow to that state’s every wish and every spy in exchange for paying full tuition into their already bloated coffers? How much do they make? “What is and should be,” Prestowitz asks, “the price of these souls?”
In Western universities and board rooms, souls are cheap. But Lai’s is not. “What separates Jimmy Lai,” a friend in corporate consulting wrote me, “from many of this era’s modern-day princes is that he deeply cares about something beyond his own money, power and status.”
“This is just living my life,” he told the BBC this spring, sitting in his mansion in northern Hong Kong. “But if I’m in jail I’m living my life meaningfully.”
“But you must fear some things,” reporter Danny Vincent asked. “For your family, for Hong Kong, for your loved ones.”
“Yes,” he replied, shuddering, his lip quivering and tears suddenly in his eyes. “You’re right. I do have fear.”
As with courage, sacrifice, and pain, it’s easy to say we have what it will take. Going to church on Sunday or giving what amounts to a rounding error to some social justice cause is fine, but is it enough? Is it remotely enough? How many of our Western elites know in their hearts that if they died in their sleep tonight, no one could say they gave it all for God?
So a lot of media accounts weren’t wrong, they just got it half right. Jimmy Lai, a man born in poverty, who became a billionaire, who became a Christian, who became a Catholic, who became a freedom fighter, might die this time, next time, or the time after that, imprisoned and penniless. But when he is weighed and measured, he will not be found wanting. And for that, when Jimmy Lai dies he will die a very wealthy man indeed.
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