Jimmy Lai

Jimmy Lai

A sharp business move by HK's 'democracy tycoon'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2011, 12:00am


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The so-called scandal over media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying's donations to support the pan-democrats and Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun caused a stir across the media landscape last week.

The hoo-ha has finally died down, except for a handful of pro-Beijing news organisations that have continued to lash out at Lai for obvious reasons.

The uproar has not had any negative impact on Lai and his Next Media company; on the contrary, it has inadvertently boosted his reputation as a 'democracy tycoon' and his media product as a 'democracy newspaper'.

In all honesty, it's an open secret that Lai and his media organisation have been supporting the city's democratic movement for quite a while. The reports caused a stir mainly because they revealed how significant his financial contributions have been to the pan-democratic parties.

They showed he was the only non-member financial supporter of the Democratic Party. Almost all the party's donations came from Lai and he has also been responsible for up to 60 per cent of the Civic Party's donations over the years.

Our law doesn't prohibit political parties from receiving political donations, or require parties to declare the sources of donations. The latest news has exposed one thing: many people have talked about supporting democracy in Hong Kong, but few have put their money where their mouth is.

The real tragedy here is that Hong Kong has just one financial donor who truly supports the democratic movement.

No other tycoons have come forward to provide similar financial support; Lai truly is Hong Kong's democracy tycoon.

Lai is very sharp and perceptive. He has benefited immensely from the saga as other media organisations and politicians have turned the free publicity spotlight on him. No matter what his motivations are for supporting the city's democratic movement, Lai has no doubt reaped immense benefits in the process. Increased newspaper circulation and ad sales have already made it worthwhile for him to support the movement.

Most Hongkongers who support democracy will also back his newspaper. About 60 per cent of the population support the pan-democrats while the remainder back the pro-establishment camp. So the majority of those who embrace democracy should see Lai's newspaper and other publications as their voice.

His HK$20 million worth of donations to Cardinal Zen, the former head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, was also a smart move given that the outspoken cardinal is a highly respected community figure.

It's almost certain that at least some of that money has been used to support underground churches on the mainland as well as other charitable and democratic causes, so Lai's donations must have earned a big round of applause from many Hongkongers who believe in religious freedom.

Hopefully those in the pro-China camp have learned a valuable lesson. They misinterpreted the situation, thinking they could smear Lai's reputation. Instead, they need to understand that Lai has strong public backing and should not be taken lightly.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong was quick to realise it wasn't wise to continue to lash out at Lai as limiting political donations to parties would be the equivalent of dropping a rock on their own toes.

The DAB receives political donations from outside the party of between HK$50 million and HK$60 million a year. Their donors no doubt also wish to remain anonymous. So if they had insisted on attacking Lai, the outcome might have hurt them just as much, if not more.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Party vice-chairman Emily Lau Wai-hing was foolish enough to call on the government to introduce legislation on political parties as soon as possible to regulate their financing. That truly defies logic.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk