Witness against Hong Kong mogul Jimmy Lai was mistreated, reporting finds

HONG KONG — Some of the 12 were starting to relax. It had been about two hours since they set off from a quiet pier in Hong Kong in August 2020, jerrycans of fuel, backpacks and fishing rods nestled between them in the crowded boat, its silver-white hull striking against the blue waters.

The piercing sound of a whistle cut through the calm. A speedboat, carrying five or six uniformed men, all armed, pulled alongside. They ordered the boat’s driver to turn off the engine. A second, much bigger vessel soon arrived — “CHINESE COAST GUARD” in bold lettering on its side — making clear what they already knew: It was over.

A year before, mass protests had erupted in their city, turning these young Hong Kongers into street fighters and international advocates. After Beijing passed a draconian new national security law that would crush the territory’s remaining freedoms and impose long prison sentences on pro-democracy activists, they tried to flee — only to be apprehended in international waters by China. The account of their capture at sea is described here for the first time from court documents obtained by The Washington Post and people familiar with how the event unfolded.

Among those on board was a man who would soon emerge for Beijing as a prized capture: Andy Li Yu-hin. More than three years later, his place in the remaking of Hong Kong in China’s image is becoming clear.

On Monday, Hong Kong’s highest profile trial since the 2020 crackdown will begin. Li’s testimony will be key to the government’s case against Jimmy Lai, the billionaire media mogul and founder of Apple Daily, the independent newspaper that has now been shut down. Lai is charged under the national security law with “colluding with foreign forces.” The Hong Kong authorities will use the prosecution to paint a narrative of the 2019 protests as a U.S.-directed plot aimed at destabilizing China, instead of the grass-roots-organized demonstrations they were, lawyers and analysts familiar with the case say.

Li, a 33-year-old gifted programmer who during the protests became a significant player in international lobbying and fundraising efforts, has already pleaded guilty under the national security law for his own role in the democracy movement, and he is expected to tie Lai to an alleged foreign conspiracy against Hong Kong and China.

But Li was mistreated while in Chinese custody, a year-long Washington Post examination of the case found, raising questions about whether his testimony will be voluntary and reliable. The Post’s reporting reveals previously undisclosed details about the coercive treatment of the 12 escapees, especially Li, by Chinese authorities, and Li’s reemergence and continued detention in Hong Kong after seven months of isolation in China.

“They have a plot line, a kind of story,” said Beatrice Li, Andy’s sister, of the prosecution. “And they need to fit the characters in.”

This story draws on court documents from both Hong Kong and mainland China, CCTV footage and letters from prison obtained or reviewed by The Post, as well interviews with multiple people familiar with the experiences of those on the boat and their detention on the mainland, and with people close to both Li and Lai. Some people spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case or because they feared for their own security; most spoke exclusively to The Post. They said they agreed to be interviewed because they fear the case will be used to rewrite the narrative of Hong Kong’s 2019 protests and wanted a historical record of the facts.

The confluence of events that brought the mogul and the former activist together as defendant and witness is testament to how far the independence of the city’s courts has eroded since the national security law was imposed by Beijing in June 2020, lawyers and democracy activists say — and how the Hong Kong courts now resemble the system of justice in mainland China where coerced testimony is routinely used to secure convictions. Hong Kong police have started airing confessions from jailed protesters on television, mirroring the long-established practice of public, forced confessions in China.

“We don’t have any faith in the process within Hong Kong,” said Caoilfhionn Gallagher, the Irish human rights lawyer who leads Lai’s international legal team. “Jimmy Lai is being prosecuted under a law which should not exist, in a system which has become profoundly unfair.”

Lai’s Hong Kong-based legal team declined to comment, citing a practice of not speaking ahead of trials.

Lai, 76, has already been convicted of other crimes, including unlawful assembly and fraud, but the national security charge is the most serious, punishable by up to life in jail. Imprisoned since December 2020, he spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong government, in a written response to questions from The Post, said all prosecutorial decisions by the Hong Kong Department of Justice “are based on admissible evidence” and that Hong Kong “enjoys independent judicial power” with courts and judges who are “free from any interference.”

“Cases will never be handled any differently owing to the profession, political beliefs or background of the persons involved,” the spokesman said. “To suggest otherwise is utter nonsense without regard to objective facts.”

China’s national public security bureau and the Shenzhen municipal public security bureau did not respond to requests for comment. China’s foreign ministry said ahead of the trial that “Jimmy Lai is one of the most notorious anti-China elements bent on destabilizing Hong Kong and a mastermind of the riots … responsible for numerous egregious acts.”

Pending his appearance as a witness, Li is being held in a Hong Kong psychiatric facility and could not be reached for comment; other prosecution witnesses in sensitive trials are also detained at this secluded unit. Li, who has become a devout Christian in his time in detention, spends his days learning languages — Ukrainian and Arabic are his current focus — solving crossword puzzles and reciting Psalms, according to people familiar with his situation.

A new, leaderless form of protest

Jimmy Lai’s story is lore in Hong Kong. Many in the city can recite how he arrived in the city as a stowaway from China when he was 12, toiling as a child laborer in a garment factory, only to eventually found a popular clothing brand of his own, and then direct his wealth toward pro-democracy causes. It was the June 4, 1989, crackdown on Tiananmen Square in Beijing that prompted his turn to media. It was “the business of freedom, of delivering freedom,” Lai said in a 2016 interview. In 1995, as Hong Kong’s handover to China approached, he founded Apple Daily with his own money.

Andy Li’s childhood was, by contrast, unexceptional. He was raised by parents who were apolitical. His family did not attend the yearly vigil commemorating the June 4 massacre. The Li family believed it was better to “just live your own life,” Beatrice Li said, “and just don’t get involved.”

As Li grew, he preferred solitude, often getting lost in books and his computer. He quickly emerged as a gifted student, earning a place at the prestigious Diocesan Boys’ School, a 154-year-old Anglican boys school. Li chose to stay in the city for university, obtaining a bachelor’s of business administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He also taught himself Japanese.

In June 2019, more than a million people took to the streets to peacefully oppose a bill that would allow the transfer of fugitives from Hong Kong to places it did not have an extradition treaty with — notably mainland China. Among Hong Kong’s most prized institutions were its common law courts, where defendants could be assured the right to bail, a fair trial, legal representation and other guarantees absent on the mainland. The bill threatened to erode the legal firewall between the two territories.

As demonstrations roiled city streets, apps such as Telegram and the LIHKG online forum had become an extension of the movement, places where methods of resistance and new ideas were debated and voted on by the collective. A group of Hong Kong-based academics in a 2021 paper wrote that the LIHKG forum, in particular, contributed to the “power and sustainability” of the movement and helped articulate justifications for more “radical” tactics. Li found his way to the online group Stand With Hong Kong (SWHK), his colleagues said, and became one of the many young Hong Kongers who were driving this new, leaderless form of protest.

SWHK activists were anonymous, both to the world and — at least at the start — to one another. They worked across cities and time zones. Yet, personalities started to emerge: Li’s as awkward, with jokes that never seemed to land, and as a workaholic who never slept.

“We’d often tease him: ‘are you actually a computer?’” said Catherine Li, a former member of SWHK who is not related to Andy.

SWHK grew into a formidable lobbying force, focused on international advocacy. Information on what was underway in Hong Kong was translated and disseminated into different languages; Li was among those who helped with Japanese. SWHK launched several crowdfunding campaigns, which raised millions for their work, including to fund ads supporting the protests in international papers. The campaigns were a major success, but for one catch: The funds that were raised on the website GoFundMe needed to be deposited in a U.S.-based bank account.

Some of the crowdfunded money was transferred to the personal bank account in New York of one of Lai’s executives, Mark Simon, an American, and eventually to Andy Li’s personal bank account in Hong Kong, according to court documents. Simon was then the group director for Next Digital, Apple Daily’s parent company.

Supporting the pro-democracy movement through the media “was what we were doing all along,” said Simon in an interview. Apple Daily would print tens of thousands of extra copies on significant protest days in the city. “What these guys were doing with the ads … was part of the program.”

Li, his colleagues and sister said, was willing to play that role because he felt financially independent as a freelance programmer, unlike others based in Hong Kong who could be fired by their pro-government companies.

Li dropped his anonymity and became a representative of this decentralized movement in international forums. He appeared in-person at a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting on China in Geneva in September 2019, and he helped organize an observation mission ahead of local elections in Hong Kong that November.

“If he is already the one at risk, then let’s put all risk in that basket, rather than introducing risk to someone else,” Beatrice said of her brother’s decision. At the time, nothing they were doing was illegal — not fundraising abroad, lobbying foreign governments or raising attention for the movement.

The mood started to shift in early 2020 as the pandemic ended momentum on the streets. With the city quietened, Beijing passed the national security law, introducing four vague new crimes — secession, subversion, colluding with foreign forces and terrorism. On Aug. 9, 2020, national security police fanned out across the city in their first sweep under the new order. Jimmy Lai and his two sons were arrested, while hundreds of officers raided the offices of Apple Daily.

Lai’s profile was so large that few paid attention to the others arrested that day. Among them was a man police named as Li Yu-hin. Friends and family just called him Andy.

Police in Hong Kong released Li after the 48-hour mandatory bail period but held his passport. They also seized devices from his home — multiple laptops and phones, and a document with a list of Hong Kong officials that activists believed should be targeted by U.S. sanctions.

The arrests shattered the world of Li and other activists. SWHK descended into infighting, believing the arrests had put the rest of them — still anonymous — in danger. Li’s sister Beatrice, who had publicly campaigned beside him, left Hong Kong. Li himself became increasingly agitated as he tried to find a way out of the city without his passport, colleagues said.

“He was doing lots of things he normally wouldn’t do, like giving out his personal info to others. That’s not a typical Andy Li thing,” said a former colleague at SWHK. In those weeks, the person said, “Andy didn’t seem like a robot anymore … it turned out he was more emotional than us.”

Since early 2020, some young Hong Kong activists facing criminal charges, aided by a group of volunteers, had started making plans to leave Hong Kong for Taiwan by boat. The designated captain and some others prepared for the journey by practicing sailing out on the open seas. They pretended to be fishing enthusiasts and purchased rods, reels and hooks — but also satellite phones and binoculars.

Li and another young man became last-minute entries, known to the group simply as “No. 11” and “No. 12,” according to Chinese court documents.

Late on Aug. 22, Quinn Moon, the organizer of the operation and the only woman on the boat, told the others they would be leaving the next morning and to gather at the Po Toi O pier, according to Hong Kong court documents. Moon is in prison in Hong Kong and couldn’t be reached for comment. CTV footage captured there just after dawn on Aug. 23, 2020, show several young men with surgical masks, most in black T-shirts. They looked like casual day-trippers — save for the heavy jerrycans of fuel they carried.

Relentless interrogation in China

After the 12 were intercepted, Chinese coast guard officers brought them onto the coast guard ship and handcuffed them. The mood in the cabin was despondent as they sailed north for over an hour. When they tried to whisper to one another, the armed guards shouted at them to shut up, according to people familiar with the events.

When they landed, they were bused to a police station, then to a hospital where their blood was drawn, before being taken to a detention center in Yantian, a Shenzhen district separated from Hong Kong by just a narrow inlet. They were immediately separated and kept in single cells.

For the first three months, according to several people familiar with the conditions, they were confined to these solitary cells, where two guards on shift took turns to watch them around-the-clock, even as they went to the bathroom. The lights were always on. During the day, they were forced to sit cross-legged on a concrete stool until their joints grew sore, except during mealtimes or interrogations. Walking around the cell was generally not permitted. At night, they were awakened at random hours, for no apparent reason. They were never allowed outside.

The interrogations were relentless during those initial months, the people familiar with the conditions said. Guards threatened to send them to Xinjiang — where the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained more than a million Muslim Uyghurs and subjected them to torture, forced sterilization, surveillance and other conditions, according to the United Nations — if they did not detail their attempted escape.

Most of 12 were not physically abused, but seven people familiar with conditions at the center said screaming could “consistently” be heard coming from one cell: Li’s.

“It is likely that what [Li] faced inside was 10 times worse” than the rest, one person said.

After his arrest in Hong Kong and before he boarded the boat, Li had entrusted someone with managing his passwords, hoping they could get into his social media accounts and secure them should something go wrong. When the person opened his Facebook account, they saw that it had been accessed after his detention in China. The term “crowdfunding” had been entered in Facebook’s search box, the person said. “They were already looking for those links, that financial link,” the person added.

In Hong Kong, prominent activists such as Joshua Wong took up the cause of those detained in mainland China. Hashtags such as #save12 and #bringthemback went viral in the city. Beatrice started an account on Twitter, renamed to X this year, under the username “andy_is_missing” to raise awareness about her brother’s plight.

Li’s family received their first letter from him in late November 2020. Li wrote that he was “neither bullied nor beaten up” and that he had “hired a lawyer” who helped him navigate legal procedures in the mainland. To Beatrice, he wrote: “don’t continue what you are doing, it is time to stop.”

“I have reflected here, saw the situation more clearly, and there is no future in carrying on,” Li wrote. “Take a look, I am an example.”

Family members of the 11 others received letters that contained similar wordings or phrases, particularly as it related to the conditions in detention.

Moon and the driver of the boat, Tang Kai-yin, were charged as organizers of the escape and sentenced to two and three years in prison respectively. Eight, including Li, were charged with illegally crossing into China and sentenced to seven months; two minors in the group were returned to Hong Kong. All “voluntarily” pleaded guilty, according to mainland court documents.

Colluding with foreign forces

Chan Tsz-wah, a former colleague of Li’s, was still asleep at home in February 2021 when Hong Kong police knocked on his door. He barely had time to get dressed before they declared he was under arrest under the security law. Jimmy Lai, already in prison, was rearrested, accused of assisting in Li’s escape.

As they interrogated him, national security police told Chan that Li had “betrayed” his friends and told mainland police “everything, about everyone,” according to a person familiar with the matter.

Li was returned to Hong Kong by mainland authorities on March 22, 2021, and taken to the Siu Lam Psychiatric Center. Li’s family was unable to secure him independent legal representation, his sister said, and he continues to be represented by lawyers who have strong government ties.

A 2021 paper by the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University pinpointed Li’s case as echoing “the practice of manipulating, or even dictating, legal representation for defendants in politically sensitive cases” which is “all too common on the Mainland.”

Lawyers for Li did not respond to requests for comment.

Li and Chan were charged with colluding with foreign forces, alongside Lai. The government’s statement of facts characterizes the young men as being part of a “syndicate” that “conspired with other” people to request foreign governments sanction or “engage in other hostile activities” against Hong Kong and China.

“Lai and Simon were the masterminds and financial supporters behind the scene and at the highest level command of the syndicate,” the documents state, referring to Mark Simon, Lai’s American associate whose bank account was briefly used to hold funds for SWHK.

In August 2021, Li and Chan pleaded guilty, the first two to admit to an offense under the national security law.

“I agree with the summary of facts, and I would like to say sorry,” Li said. Because they are part of the same case, Li and Chan cannot be sentenced until the end of Lai’s trial, which has been delayed multiple times — including after a court order blocked Lai’s foreign lawyer, British barrister Tim Owen, from representing him. All have been denied bail.

Several people familiar with the case speculate that Li and Chan have been offered leniency as part of a deal for agreeing to appear as witnesses, though that cannot be independently confirmed. The Hong Kong government spokesman did not directly address this question when asked by The Post but said all defendants “will undergo a fair trial.”

Finn Lau, who founded SWHK and helped direct its activities through 2019 and part of 2020, said the allegations against Lai distort the truth. The group’s ideas, methods, and tactics were their own, and SWHK activists often disagreed with Lai and his generation, who they felt were too passive.

“They accused of [Lai] of directing us, pushing us,” Lau said, “but it never happened.”

Li is expected to take the stand in the new year. As he awaits his turn as a witness, he has continued to write to his family.

He ended a recent letter with his favorite Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd … though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

Cate Caddell in Washington contributed to this report.

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