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Film about freedom activist Jimmy Lai surpasses 1 million YouTube views in under 2 weeks

A new film about Hong Kong media mogul turned pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai has amassed more than 1 million views on YouTube and over 4 million views on TikTok in just two weeks.

Interweaving historic footage, video of mass protests and arrests, and interviews with Lai and those who know him well, The Hong Konger: Jimmy Lai’s Extraordinary Struggle for Freedom is a 73-minute documentary available for free on YouTube produced by the Acton Institute, a think tank based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Lai, 75, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize along with five other prisoners of conscience in Hong Kong, including Cardinal Joseph Zen, has now been in prison for over two and a half years for defending human rights and democracy against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The film has struck a chord with viewers.

“People are understandably concerned about China’s influence, and Hong Kong is a cautionary tale,” Eric Kohn, the film’s producer, told CNA. “As Jimmy says in the film, ‘A China that won’t respect the rights of its own people, won’t respect the rights of its neighbors.’ We should feel a sense of solidarity with the people of Hong Kong, who have lived and breathed the kinds of freedoms we all enjoy as Americans but who are having those freedoms now taken away from them.”

Poster for film "The Hong Konger: Jimmy Lai's Extraordinary Struggle for Freedom". Courtesy of the Acton Institute
Poster for film “The Hong Konger: Jimmy Lai’s Extraordinary Struggle for Freedom”. Courtesy of the Acton Institute

Benedict Rogers, co-founder and executive chair of Hong Kong Watch, who is featured in the film, told CNA that Lai’s story is one that should be known everywhere.

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“Jimmy’s life story is a remarkable tale of rags to riches, spiritual transformation, and extraordinary courage of conviction,” he said. “He is a brave defender of freedom, democracy, and human rights; a devout convert to Catholicism; and an incredible entrepreneur who now faces the rest of his life in jail for speaking up, peacefully, for freedom.”

Rogers, who recently called for the British government to defend freedom of the press, explained that in the past three years, Hong Kong’s freedoms have been dismantled and the city has gone from being one of the most open in Asia to “one of the region’s most repressive police states.”

“Press freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association have all been destroyed and religious freedom is increasingly threatened,” Rogers said. “Most of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists are now in jail, in exile, or forced into silence; civil society has been shut down, and almost all independent media has been forced to close.”

Challenges for the filmmakers

The first interviews for the film began in May 2021 and were completed in February 2022. Ron Holwerda of Crossfire Productions and the director of “The Hong Konger” told CNA that the filming process was unique, as they were “living the history as they were creating the video.”

“For example during the interview with Mark Simon [former executive of Next Digital, the media company owned by Lai], he received a phone call telling him that Apple Daily newspaper had just been raided and several of his executives had just been arrested.”

There were several challenges in making the film. Holwerda said they wanted to explore how immigrants in the United States felt about the situation, but most people wouldn’t talk to them for fear of repercussions.

“It took bravery to even appear on a film that will be so opposed by the CCP,” said Holwerda, pointing out that although the CEO of TikTok appeared before U.S. Congress to say that the CCP never censors content, it de-platformed the Acton Institute for no apparent reason after the film received 4 million views of its videos, reinstating the account a little later.

Additional challenges included the lack of footage of various historic aspects of Lai’s story, and only being able to use archive interviews of Lai since he was already in prison when the decision was made to create the documentary. Lai will go on trial in September on national security charges.

Comparisons to Mandela

The filmmakers of “The Hong Konger” say they are on a mission.

“Our goal is to create awareness in the U.S. and around the world … to create a groundswell of vocal support for Jimmy,” Holwerda said. “The documentary is Jimmy’s story but it is also the story of Hong Kong. We are trying to save Jimmy and also save Hong Kong.”

Jimmy Lai at a protest in Hong Kong. Courtesy of the Acton Institute
Jimmy Lai at a protest in Hong Kong. Courtesy of the Acton Institute

Kohn, who in addition to producing the film also arranged the marketing for it, echoed that sentiment, telling CNA: “We want to see Jimmy Lai released and for Hong Kongers to have their rights restored. Just like with Nelson Mandela, it first took awareness before he could be freed and before things in South Africa could change. We hope this film is a catalyst to change in Hong Kong and for freedom for Jimmy and all the other dissidents currently being persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Those interested in following the unfolding story of Lai and Hong Kong’s fight to maintain its freedoms can follow the film’s website, FreeJimmyLai.com, for updates.

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