Near downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario is the 157-year-old Prince of Wales Hotel. Built in red brick, with a carefully restored exterior and well-maintained flower beds, the building is serene and chic; passers-by stop to take photos, making sure to include the horse and stroller parked outside.
With rooms costing around $ 500 a night, The Prince is one of three upscale hotels in the quaint town operated by Lais Hotel Properties Ltd. family, but a Hong Kong mogul best known for publishing a racy and disgusting tabloid: Jimmy Lai.
It is this property that saw the hotel chain cited in a recent court case in Hong Kong, its parent company named in an alleged collusion between the defendants and foreign forces to “endanger national security” in the Chinese city.
The charges relate to a crowdfunding campaign – “Fight For Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong” – set up in the summer of 2019 to pay for advertisements in major newspapers around the world seeking support from the international community for the pro movement. -democracy of the city.
A typical advertisement, which appeared in the Globe and Mail, urged Canadians to “join us in defending the legacy of freedom” and called on Ottawa to enact “Magnitsky-style sanctions against those responsible for or complicit in the suppression of human rights and freedoms. Hong Kong ”. Similar advertisements appeared in the New York Times, Le Monde and other major newspapers.
According to an indictment shared with The Globe, one of the main accounts used to The payments were one owned by Lais Hotel Properties, which was linked to around $ 1 million paid to seven newspapers in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan.
Lais Hotel Properties was purchased by Jimmy Lai’s twin sister Si Wai Lai in 1997 and has been family owned ever since. Canadian business records mention the American Mark Simon, Mr. Lai’s main assistant, as one of the managers of the Lais hotels.
Until June 2020, Royston Chow was also a director. Mr. Chow is one of the many executives of Hong Kong’s Next Digital Ltd., the media company founded by Mr. Lai, now faces charges under China’s National Security Law.
Lais Hotel Properties did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Mr. Simon also did not respond to a request for comment.
Although the Hong Kong affair did not directly involve Mr. Lai, it was emblematic of a multi-year effort “to build a grand conspiracy around Jimmy Lai,” said Johnny Patterson, Hong Kong policy director. Watch, a UK based human rights group.
Since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Mr. Lai and his pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily have consistently criticized the local administration and authorities in Beijing, calling for greater democracy and promoting the candidates of the opposition to the elections.
Last year, Mr. Lai and several executives at Apple Daily, as well as the newspaper’s parent company, Next Digital, were all arrested under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by Beijing, and the newspaper has since been forced to close.
The security law was prompted by the anti-government protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019, in which Chinese state media repeatedly denounced Mr. Lai as a “traitor” and alleged that he had conspired with foreign powers to stir up and direct increasingly violent disturbances.
This Svengali image of the 73-year-old tycoon is not consistent with the facts on the ground. While Apple Daily was one of the main cheerleaders in the protests – even printing signs for people to attend rallies – and Mr. Lai lobbied Western governments to lobby for greater freedoms in Hong Kong, the influence of older pro-democracy figures on young people, leaderless travel was very limited. At the height of the unrest, even elected opposition lawmakers found themselves ignored by protesters as those lawmakers attempted to contain the violence.
Michael Mo, a former Hong Kong district councilor now living in exile, said Beijing was “pointing fingers” at Mr. Lai and his associates as a way to support his cause regarding the unrest in Hong Kong. was inspired and coordinated from outside of China.
Blaming Mr. Lai, he said in an email, was helpful “in making the story ‘legitimate’, telling both Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese” that the government’s claims are correct.
One of Mr. Lai’s biggest crimes, according to the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, has been pushing for sanctions against the officials responsible for the crackdown in the city.
While newspaper ads funded by Stand With Hong Kong were by no means the only factor, several governments have responded to the unrest in Hong Kong with sanctions. The United States also passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which resulted in sanctions against several top local and Chinese officials.
from China the national security law criminalizes secession, subversion and terrorism, and makes it illegal to “collude” with foreign forces to seek sanctions, with a maximum sentence of life in prison.
In theory, the law is not retroactive, but activities before its passage in July 2020, may be taken into account by the courts. Hong Kong authorities have also took a broad view of what constitutes continuous activity, such as pushing for sanctions to remain in place.
Stand With Hong Kong, the crowdfunding campaign, describes itself as independent and popular. For his 2019 lobbying campaign, he raised some $ 1.8 million, of which about $ 813,000 was spent on newspaper advertisements, the rest being used for legal fees and “advocacy” in several countries. , according to an accounting statement published by the group.
But Hong Kong prosecutors say the crowdfunding hid the true “brains and financial backers” of the campaign: Mr. Lai and Mr. Simon, who have sought to pass international sanctions against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments in order to “force them to adhere to their political agenda.”
This accusation was brought during the trial of Andy Li and Chan Tsz-wah, two activists involved in the lobbying campaign. Mr. Li was one of 12 fugitives held by the Chinese Coast Guard last year as he tried to flee to Taiwan by speedboat. He spent seven months in a Guangdong prison for crossing the border illegally, before being returned to Hong Kong to face new charges.
Mr. Li and Mr. Chan both pleaded guilty to the charges of colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security, and approved the government’s account of the case. The indictment against them, shared with The Globe, reads like a who’s who of criticism of the Hong Kong government in the UK, US and Japan, all engaged in a massive conspiracy overseen by Mr. Lai and Mr. Simon.
This included using bank and business accounts in Hong Kong, Canada, the United States and the British Virgin Islands to pay for newspaper ads and fund other activities, prosecutors said.
In an interview with a local newspaper in Niagara-on-the-Lake when Mr. Lai was arrested in 2020, Bob Jackson, managing director of Lais Hotel Properties, said he typically sees Mr. Lai twice a year and that he corresponded with him occasionally by e-mail.
“We pray for him here,” Jackson told the Niagara-on-the-Lake Advance. “With his situation, obviously we support him, but that has no impact on our business. “
But while Mr. Lai’s connection to the hotel group is unequivocal, the government’s claim that Lais Hotels paid for newspaper ads is much less. It is not known what evidence prosecutors are basing their claims on, as they reportedly would not have access to the bank records of the Lais hotels, or to those of the newspapers that were paid for the ads.
When The Globe asked prosecutors for clarification of Lais Hotels’ alleged involvement, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong Department of Justice said, “As the proceedings are still ongoing, it is not appropriate … to comment on the case ”.
Finn Lau, founder of Stand With Hong Kong who now lives in exile in the UK, said he had never heard of the hotel chain before this month.
“I’m not at all aware of it,” he said. “Andy Li handled the details of the wire transfer. Essentially, all the financial resources came from public crowdfunding.
In the case of two advertisements placed in The Globe, records show that both were prepaid by a “Mr. Li”, and there was no record of payments from Lais Hotel Properties, from Mr. Simon or any other person associated with the company.
Mr Lau added that if Mr Lai, a multimillionaire, was a secret supporter of the campaign, “my teams would not need to rely on crowdfunding at all.”
Since both defendants in the case have pleaded guilty, the government’s claims regarding the payments will not be challenged in court. Mr. Li and Mr. Chan will be sentenced next year, following the conclusion of a separate national security case against Mr. Lai.
The allegations can however be a potential concern for Lais hotels, and people associated with the chain. Hong Kong’s national security law is extraterritorial, and the offenses described in the law can, in theory, be committed by anyone, regardless of where they are or what country they are a citizen of.
Mr Patterson, the policy director of Hong Kong Watch, said it was “entirely possible, given the absurd extraterritorial nature of the national security law, that the hotel chain could receive a summons to court. Hong Kong, ”although he added that it was doubtful authorities would find a way to significantly lure Lais Hotel Properties into the case, given that the chain is based entirely in Canada.
“But it will be interesting to watch and see if they try,” he said.
Irene Galea contributed reporting from Toronto
Our Morning Update and Evening Update bulletins are written by the editors of The Globe, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. register today.