A popular term oft repeated in the Chinese press compares two of the most popular businessmen in Hong Kong as the Apple and Orange of Hong Kong's corporate world. Property magnate and head-honcho of Cheung Kong, Li Ka-shing, is the Orange man while outspoken businessman and publisher Jimmy Lai Chee-ying is the Apple man. The only trait the two share is that they both have a rags-to-riches story. Their lifestyle, their business philosophy and their beliefs are way different - well, like apples and oranges. But, the brash, bold enfante terrible of Hong Kong publishing, Mr Lai, is turning a new leaf. Beijing's one-time bogey man has a new agenda these days - one of caution. And he keeps peppering his statements with 'off the record' quotes, making you wonder if the man who has challenged Goliaths has started wearing velvet gloves. Mr Lai, who publishes two popular Chinese-language publications, Next Magazine and Apple Daily, has been in the forefront of news mainly because he has stood up for his principles with courage and conviction. Recently, he won a long-standing battle with the establishment to have his media empire listed on the stock exchange. Now, at 51, his ardour seems to be cooling as he settles comfortably into a set routine, uncharacteristically shunning publicity. But has he lost his zest for a fight? We settle down to talk about what he terms 'anything and everything' in a conversation lasting more than two hours - such as he has not had with a journalist for a long time. 'I think, when you get older, actually you get more content with yourself and [lose] the impulse to try something new. A lot of time I was so reckless in trying this and trying that, but now I am content with myself,' says the man with a reputation for confronting giants. 'The fire is very strong, but the flame is not as flickering,' he adds, possibly feeling the need for justification. So, has Jimmy Lai entered the autumn years of his life, becoming the lion in the winter whose roar lacks its old boom and intensity? Is he content to sit and let prey come to him rather than hunt for it? You are tempted to probe further, to venture into that aspect of his life he has never talked publicly about - his views on life, the influences in his early years, his beliefs, the people he admires most in Hong Kong and, of course, his battle of wits with the mandarins in Beijing. 'I am never happy with what I do, there's always room for improvement,' he says about Apple Daily and Next Magazine and his recent foray into direct-marketing business adMart. 'If I am happy about it, I become complacent - and that's the end of everything. I am happy with my life, and that's most important. That makes it easy for me to lose so much money and not worry about it. The most important thing is to move on,' he says. Mr Lai has already sunk more than $300 million into the adMart venture, which has generated press mainly for the wrong reasons and has pitched him against the likes of Mr Li and Jardines. When I bring that up, some of the old fire and bluntness of speech shows through. 'I have got myself in a shit-hole,' he says of the direct-marketing business. 'I love trouble. I love big trouble.' Talking of which, he admits there have been instances when his at-times controversial publishing venture Apple Daily has attracted the wrath of the Government and judiciary for blurring the fine line between news, what is ethical, and what crosses the line and offends against journalistic principles. 'When you try to be innovative, when you try to be competitive, it is very easy sometimes for you to go overboard, because to be innovative is to be unconventional,' he said. 'When you want to take out the conventions, danger is prolific, and that is why you have to be very careful. Convention is to try to be on the beaten path; if you try the path which is unconventional, you get nixed.' To survive in the cut-throat business of newspaper publishing in Hong Kong he said he had to be one step ahead of the competition. 'We always want to break into new areas, create something new, something fresh with whatever we are doing, [like] what we are doing with adMart and other things,' he said. 'We have to be very careful with media business, although we encourage innovation. 'I could only say that we have to learn from our mistakes and, hopefully, we don't have many in the future,' he said. But in the same breath he warned that press freedom in the special administrative region was in peril if the move by legislators to establish a press council and a code of conduct for journalists went through. 'It is the beginning of the end of free press. It does not matter what they [the Government] say. I think we have to discipline ourselves,' he said. 'But definitely there is no role for the Government to put their hands on the media. Once they do that, the image of Hong Kong as a free place is gone with the wind.' So, does he think there may have been subtle hints from Beijing to rein in the Hong Kong press? 'If the Hong Kong Government really has to work smoothly with the Chinese Government, it must look at things with the same perspective and also the same value system,' he said. If you looked at things that way, it was easy to see the 'media hook' as a natural thing. Surprisingly, he is not vocal on the publicly debated issue of reasons behind the transfer of RTHK director Cheung Man-yee to a trade post in Tokyo. 'It does not sound good; it does not smell good. But even if it does not smell good, it does not necessarily have to be bad - unless you have proof,' was all that he would venture. If some other media personality had given that answer, it would be no surprise. But this is Jimmy Lai, the maverick renowned for sharp, controversial answers. We turn to his role in society and what he feels are the contributions he has made to Hong Kong and its people. 'I think definitely we are responsible business people,' he said. 'I think we always have been. But, whatever people call me, I really don't care. At the end of the day, it is my conscience for me to answer to. 'People should judge our characters from what we are, from what we have done, not even from what we are going to do, because you cannot judge what we are going to do. 'But if people judge us for what we have done, and think that we are maverick, or we are this or that . . . reactionary people, whatever, if that is the fact, let it be so.' Mr Lai's conviction and integrity comes across strongly as he talks about his beliefs. For many, this is when he is true-blue Jimmy Lai, the man they want him to be all the time. This certainly is when the lion in him roars. 'At the end of the day, you are what you are. Your convictions, your value systems and your morals, intellectual integrity, will not change. If you are maverick, you cannot change,' he says. 'I do not believe in image; all that is PR. If people misunderstand [me] in the short-term, it does not matter. I am a good guy in the long-term, and I don't care a shit what you think.' Mr Lai also does not believe in creating a persona just to define his role in society, or just because he is a successful businessman. 'I think that if you are troubled by what people think, you are totally ruled by your image, totally driven by the expediency of your image,' he said. 'One day, you lose yourself. You don't know where you stand. If I lose everybody in the world, I have myself. I hope I have my wife and family by my side. But even if that is not to happen, I don't care. If I can go to sleep with a clear conscience, that is what I care. The only person I look to and I answer to is God.' He says his viewpoints were formed early in life, when he was in his teens and struggling to make ends meet. His intellectual mentor, he says, is Frederick Hayek and his book The Road to Selfdom. 'It stimulated me to read about his theories on political science, economics. He actually started the intellectual pursuit [part] of my life . . . when I was barely 20. I don't think without him I would be [what I am] today. My intellectual capacity is a great grace in helping me as a businessman to do what I do, especially for someone who never went to school.' He said he read a lot of biographies in his formative years, though he refused to name those which influenced him most. 'I read too many of them. I even read the Bible. Even the people in the Bible are horrible people, they all have faults. None is perfect,' Mr Lai said. So does he intend to write a book a couple of years down the road? 'I am not a writer. If I write a book you ought to be very honest, which is not a problem. But it will be a problem for some of the people. 'I do not believe in describing a life. At the end of the day, you are just too small,' Mr Lai said. He said the two people he admired the most in Hong Kong were Democratic Party legislator Martin Lee and the former head of RTHK Cheung Man-yee. 'But they are not my idols. I don't have an idol. I don't believe in heroes,' he said rather somberly. So is he a role model for his children, and what advice does he give them as a father? 'Be yourself and be good,' he said without a moment's hesitation. And then for a brief second he glances at his laptop, a hint that our time is up. One last question - how would he sum up his life so far? 'Life is uncertain, life is something you never know. Life is haphazard, it is mysterious . . . not planned. There are loads of chances, opportunities and adversities. So I have always been a survivor. 'I have never looked beyond the immediate problem. If I can solve the problem in front of me, a bit of the future will unfold. I never tried to look very far from now,' he said with the nonchalance that has been his hallmark.