For years, a bust of John James Cowperthwaite sat prominently in the foyer of Jimmy Lai’s Next Media office in Hong Kong, along with others of economists F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. If that’s all you ever knew about Jimmy Lai, you could at least surmise that he loves liberty and free markets.
Cowperthwaite had been the architect of Hong Kong’s free market miracle. He started with a destitute rock and turned it into one of the world’s freest and most prosperous economies. (Indeed, I’ve suggested that he deserves to be recognized annually and everywhere with a Cowperthwaite Day on the anniversary of his birthdate, April 25.) Jimmy Lai is precisely the sort of individual that Cowperthwaite had in mind when he decided that entrepreneurs, not central planners, should drive an economy. Because of what Cowperthwaite had done, Jimmy Lai found a hero himself. And Lai, too, would go on to do great things.
Of the characteristics most often identified with successful entrepreneurship, Jimmy Lai possesses them all in abundance. He is a self-starter who takes initiative (and risk) with enthusiasm. He’s creative and intuitive. He’s passionate and tenacious. Where others see problems, he sees opportunity. He’s a visionary, both in business endeavors and for society at large. He doesn’t hesitate to defy conventional wisdom when it points to a dead end. Whatever he undertakes, he musters the courage to act. He puts his all — money, time, and energy — where his mouth is (and where his convictions are).
On paper, Lai’s early life would seem unlikely to produce a “real hero.” He was born in China the year before it fell under Mao Zedong’s dictatorial rule. Lai was smuggled out of the country and into Hong Kong at age 12. In the absence of child-labor laws, which would have ensured his deprivation there, too, Lai went to work in a garment factory for $8 a month. Fifteen years later, he bought his own garment factory and built it into the giant known as Giordano, now a leading international retailer. Lai’s boundless entrepreneurial zeal, free to operate within Hong Kong’s laissez-faire business environment, yielded jobs for thousands and consumer goods for millions.
But in 1989, Beijing’s infamous Tiananmen Square massacre set Jimmy Lai on a new course. With Hong Kong scheduled to be transferred from British to Chinese rule in just eight years, Lai knew that maintaining traditional freedoms under Beijing’s rule would be a challenge. So he ventured into media, creating what soon became the territory’s largest-circulation magazines, Sudden Weekly and Next. In spite of Beijing’s coercion of advertisers, Jimmy Lai’s tabloid-style newspaper, Apple Daily, is still the premier voice in Asia for the freedoms of speech, press, and enterprise.
Jimmy Lai does not shrink from controversy. The Communist Party of China, he wrote in a 1994 column, is “a monopoly that charges a premium for a lousy service.” He defended the student demonstrators when they went into the streets by the hundreds of thousands in late 2014 in defense of democracy. He routinely exposed corruption in both government and business, including the especially toxic brand of corruption that arises when the two get in bed together. He sold Giordano, the apparel firm he founded, to save it from Beijing’s intense pressure, but he refuses to this day to renounce his principles.
In December 2014, he revealed that he was stepping down as publisher of Apple Daily and chairman of Next Media to devote more time to family and personal interests. A month later, and for the second time, unknown assailants firebombed his home. He remains under intense scrutiny from Beijing, which regularly employs ugly rumors, threats of litigation, and other nefarious means to undermine his influence.
Earlier this year, Lai told the New York Times that he never planned to make his media empire into a family dynasty. His six children (ages 8 to 37) are not in line as heirs to that business or its leadership positions. “I don’t think I should ask my kids to inherit my business, because they can’t start where I did,” he said. “I was from the street. I’m a very different make of person. I’ve been a fighter all my life.”
Whatever the future holds for Jimmy Lai, friends of liberty everywhere can count him as one very brave man.
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