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Pro-Democracy Hong Kong Media Mogul Targeted by Firebombing

Next Media Ltd. tycoon Jimmy Lai is a champion of press freedom who has been outspokenly critical of China and supportive of the city's pro-democracy Occupy Central protests.
January 12, 2015, 4:35pm
Photo via AP/Kin Cheung

An outspoken Hong Kong media tycoon's home was attacked early on Monday in an incident that was caught on surveillance footage.

The released video shows a silver vehicle stopping in front of Next Media Ltd. mogul Jimmy Lai's driveway on Kadoorie Avenue. A man exits and hurls what appears to be a Molotov cocktail at the residence before driving away. The bomb left behind a puddle of flame and a bewildered looking security guard. Nobody was hurt.

Men also lobbed firebombs at Next Media's Hong Kong headquarters in a separate incident at approximately the same early hour.

Lai — also known as Lai Chi-ying — is a champion of press freedom who has been outspokenly critical of China. His corporate yacht is reportedly named "Free China."

In December 2002, Lai took to Hong Kong's streets to protest the government's proposed "anti-subversion" law, which he labeled "an invisible, tightening collar" and an attack on free speech. The bill was later shelved indefinitely.

He supported the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong, which he called a "wake-up call" for the local legislature, and his media outlets, such as Next Magazine and the Apple Daily newspaper, gave blanket coverage to the demonstrations calling for universal suffrage. Lai, 66, was a regular visitor to the Occupy Central camps, and was arrested in December after refusing to vacate one of the protest sites.

Video shows pro-democracy legislators staging yellow umbrella walkout in Hong Kong. Read more here.

The businessman stepped down as Apple Daily's publisher following his arrest, and subsequently resigned as Next Media chairman and executive director, ostensibly to spend more time with his family. He remains the company's majority shareholder.

"You cannot have the media so close to you that it becomes your voice," he recently told the New York Times. "This is no good, because it becomes too extreme and people will resent it."

Lai could now face legal proceedings relating to his actions. He has been identified as a leader of the Occupy Central movement, and was told to report to a police station on January 21.

Lai might also face additional charges. Hong Kong's anti-corruption agency began investigating donations he madeto the city's pro-democracy politicians after Next Media was hacked last summer and emails detailing some of his political contributions were subsequently leaked. He believes the hacking was state-sponsored.

Monday was not the first time Lai had been targeted. In November, five men were arrested after Lai was hit in the face with animal organs. The attackers were allegedly also shouting "drop dead" — echoing a phrase that Lai wrote in an editorial in the 1990s about Chinese Premier Li Peng, after which Lai's Giordano clothing stories in China were forced to close. His house has also seen previous assaults. A stolen car was driven into his front gate in 2013, while an axe and machete were left in the driveway.

"It's just the beginning" — Hong Kong protesters vow they'll be back as police tear down main pro-democracy camp. Read more here.

Lai was born in Guangzhou, southern China. When he was 12, his family paid a smuggler to take him to Hong Kong in the hull of a boat. Once there, he lived on the street, in sweatshops, worked odd jobs, and eventually became successful in the world of retail before turning his attentions to media.

In a 1994 interview, Lai told Wired magazine that he got the idea to set up Next Magazine during the Tiananmen massacre.

"The fact that the Chinese government was responding to the demand for democracy by shooting people — that they were completely unable to deal with the demonstration — showed me just how desperate and doomed they were," he said. "I realized right then that there was no reverse role for China. It would have to open up to the free flow of information; and when it did, it would be the biggest market in the world."

The magazine's first issue was released in March 1991, and stories they ran in the first few years included one on government corruption, China's "one-child policy," and an exposé of Chinese criminal gangs called Triads.

"I've always wanted to change things," Lai added. "The events of June 4 gave me the inspiration I needed. Now I'm no longer in a business that just delivers merchandise and makes money; I'm in a business that delivers information — and information is freedom. That's a great motivator for me. I've never been able to relate to my home country, yet now I'm directly involved in bringing more freedom to the Chinese people."

This dissident really wants to go home but China refuses to arrest him. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd