(ZENIT News / Roma, 10.20.2023).- “I am profoundly disappointed by the Vatican’s diplomatic position. I interpret it only as a return to the past of dealing with communist regimes, during the Soviet Union, and its various entities. We have seen… how it has gone for over 50 years,” said Fr. Robert Sirico, president emeritus of the Acton Institute and executive producer of The Hong Konger. Sirico made his comments to a sold-out theater while recounting the plight of the film’s protagonist, Catholic Chinese billionaire and media mogul, Jimmy Lai. Lai is spending his third year in prison after being sentenced for five years and nine months on trumped up fraud charges leveled by Communist officials.
At age 75, Lai now finds himself in solitary confinement, following an international outcry for his release, while awaiting a second trial with a possible life sentence for new charges of violating Beijing’s national security law and colonial-era anti-sedition legislation.
Fr. Sirico, being raised in an Italian Catholic family and as street-smart resident of Brooklyn, has never stopped advocating for the liberation of his friend whose legal woes with the Beijing government escalated, after he was arrested in 2020, after Beijing banned a peaceful Tianamen Square vigil Lai organized in 2020. The vigil was banned for the first in 30 years, according to a BBC report, as Beijing imposed social distancing measures during the Covid pandemic. Lai served a 13 month-sentence.
“I have never taken the gloves off,” said Sirico resolutely after reiterating that there is a sense of despair for Lai’s case. Sirico said he isn’t “lobbying” the Vatican in Rome, but bringing international attention to a good fight he has never backed down from. He said he has known the man for over 20 years and can vouch for the inhumane injustice he and his family now face, as Lai is back in prison.
In addition to launching a web page (freejimmylai.com), Sirico executively produced the artistic documentary, The Hong Konger, released privately in 2022 and now available public viewing on YouTube. Sirico is showing the film in theaters with continued requests for international screenings.
The award-winning, dramatic 83-minute film is dedicated to Lai’s inspiring rags-to-riches journey from a Maoist child refugee to a billionaire pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong and eventual religious convert now jailed for freely expressing his resistance to Beijing’s encroachment on fundamental natural rights. The film was showcased in Rome for the first-time this past 16 October during the month-long synod of the Catholic Church’s bishops.
The Hong Konger Rome premiere took place at the Institut Française Centre Saint-Louis cinema. “We chose this particular venue on purpose,” highlighted Michael Severance, director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office during his introduction, “because it is the very cultural center founded by renowned French intellectual Jacques Maritain, author of the anti-collectivist treatise of political philosophy, The Man and the State.” Severance said that during his tenure as French Ambassador to the Holy See, following the France’s liberation in 1944 and toward the end of the Second World War, Maritain began discussions “right here in Rome, where he eventually led the French delegation’s final drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by United Nations at the very end of his diplomatic service in 1948.”
The film powerfully traces Lai’s remarkable rise to personal success from a poor family in Canton, China, where he was forced to work as a porter at the tender age of nine at the Guadong railway station. Sent away by his mother at age 12, with a nugget of gold sewn into his clothing and hidden in the hull of fishing vessel, Lai joined hundreds sea-sick stowaways longing for freedom in Hong Kong. Lai started out as a factory floor sweeper, then became a textile merchant and invested his modest earnings in the stock market where he earned huge sums to launch a hugely profitable clothing chain, Giordano, in Hong Kong and mainland China. As told in the film, Lai’s wild rich and famous lifestyle was brought to a solemn conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1997, being baptized into the Church by Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun.
Appalled by China’s repressive actions in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Lai begin giving away pro-democracy T-shirts at his Giordano stores and then founded the weekly Next Magazine and Hong Kong’s most widely read newspaper, Apple Daily “since information means freedom.” Both media outlets were ultimately forcefully shut down after Beijing officials froze his corporate accounts.
The film not only captures the authentic voice of Jimmy Lai with various private and public interviews, but also those of many of his friends and colleagues, with some audio recordings altered for their personal protection. The Hong Konger brutally exposes the crackdown imposed by Beijing on the former British colony starting with the 30 June 2020 enforcement of the CCP’s National Security Law, which led to an onslaught of democratic activists being arbitrary arrested and convicted by unfair trials events, “clear violations articles 9 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, according to Severance.
Sirico, co-founder of the Acton Institute, a U.S.-based think tank advocating promotion of the moral and theological foundations of free enterprise, told the audience that his support of markets and entrepreneurship, was profoundly influenced, just like Jimmy Lai, by Nobel laureate Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.
In a provocative debate ensuing the film’s screening, the American priest said regarding the Vatican’s tepid diplomatic stance, but also concerning the faith of believers in general, “I think our greatest weakness is that we do not believe in our greatest strength.”
“Our greatest strength is the truth. It’s bearing witness to the truth. You see it emblematically in Jimmy Lai,” he said. “We saw,” Sirico continued, “this when Saint John Paul II, who deeply understood the dynamics of totalitarian regime…courageously opposed the power of evil by bearing witness to the truth. He made tyrants tremble”, like General Wojciech Jaruzelski who had greeted the pope while nervously sweating before the Polish successor of Peter.
“All that remains for us is to join our voices in support of the true, the good, and the beautiful, in support of a life of joyful freedom, creative adventure, and unyielding faith, like Lai’s”, said Severance in post-even interview. “This is the calling exemplified by Jimmy’s steadfast Catholic faith. And so we are duty bound, as his brothers and sisters in Christ. to band together as family to #FreeJimmyLai.”