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Lai Chee-Ying, better known by his western name Jimmy Lai, is a Hong Kong entrepreneur. He founded Giordano, an Asian clothing retailer, and Next Digital (Formerly Next Media), a Hong Kong-listed media company and a Chinese-language media group. He is one of the main contributors to the pro-democracy camp, especially to the Democratic Party.
Early life and escape from China
Born 1948 in an impoverished family in Canton, Kwangtung, China with family roots in nearby Shunde, Lai was educated to fifth grade level.
Smuggled to Hong Kong aboard a small boat at the age of 13, Lai worked as a child-laborer in a garment factory for a wage of $8 per month.
Founding of Giordano
Rising to the level of factory manager, Lai speculated his year-end bonus on Hong Kong stocks to raise enough cash to buy out the owners of a bankrupt garment factory, Comitex, in 1975 and began producing sweaters.
Customers included J.C.
Penney, Montgomery Ward, and other U.S. retailers.
By rewarding sellers with financial incentives in Hong Kong, he built the chain into an Asia-wide retailer.
Giordano was said to have more than 11,000 employees in 1,700 shops across 30 territories worldwide.
Transition to publishing
Owing to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Lai became an advocate of democracy and critic of the People's Republic of China government. He distributed Giordano T-shirts with portraits of student leaders and began publishing Next Magazine, which combined tabloid sensationalism with hard-hitting political and business reporting.
He went on to found other magazines, including Sudden Weekly (忽然一週), Eat & Travel Weekly (飲食男女), Trading Express/Auto Express (交易通/搵車快線) and the youth-oriented Easy Finder (壹本便利).
In 1995, as the Hong Kong handover approached, Lai founded Apple Daily, a newspaper start-up that he financed with $100 million of his own money owing to investor fear of association with a critic of the Mainland China government.
The newspaper's circulation rose to 400,000 copies by 1997, which was the territory's second largest among 60 other newspapers.
In 2006, Sudden Weekly and Next Magazine ranked first and second in circulation for Hong Kong's magazine market while Apple Daily is the No. 2 newspaper in Hong Kong.
Lai encourages a company culture of transparency and creativity without hierarchy.
Employees are encouraged to tackle challenges through trial and error while assuming responsibility for their actions and sharing in profits from successful ventures.
In a 1994 newspaper column, he told Premier of the PRCLi Peng to "drop dead," and called the Communist Party of China, "a monopoly that charges a premium for lousy service".
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As a result, most of his publications remain banned in mainland China. China's government retaliated against Lai by starting a shut-down of Giordano shops, prompting him to sell out of the company he founded in order to save it.
Ahead of the record-breaking pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong of July 2003 that brought half a million people onto the streets, the cover of Next Magazine featured a photo-montage of the territory's embattled chief executive, Tung Chee-Hwa taking a pie in the face.
The magazine urged readers to take to the streets while Apple Daily distributed stickers calling for Tung to resign.
In addition to promoting democracy, Lai's publication often ruffle feathers of fellow Hong Kong tycoons by exposing their personal foibles and relations with local government.
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Lai has frequently faced hostility from the many Beijing-backed tycoons, including attempts to force supplier boycotts of his companies and a lengthy battle to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange that he sidestepped through a reverse takeover. Lai managed to list the company in 1999 by acquiring Paramount Publishing Group in October of that year.
Neither Bank of China nor any state-owned enterprise from mainland places ads in Next Media publications, while major Hong Kong property developers and a range of other top-line companies advertise only in competing publications.
The offices of his publications have been vandalised and his house was firebombed in 1993. It was at this time he converted to the Catholic faith, which has a long history in China.
Lai pioneered a reader-centric philosophy with paparazzi journalism in Hong Kong based on publications such as USA Today and The Sun.
His best-selling Next Magazine and Apple Daily newspaper, feature a mix of racy tabloid material and news items oriented to the mass market with plenty of colour and graphics that attracts a wide range of readers, some of whom are also critics of Lai and his ideology.
Lai launched Taiwan editions of Next Magazine in 2001 and Apple Daily in 2003, taking on heavily established rivals who made considerable effort to thwart him.
Rival publishers pressed advertisers to boycott and distributors not to undertake home delivery. His Taiwan offices were vandalised on numerous occasions, but as the publications grew to have the largest readership in their category, the advertising boycotts ended.
In October 2006, Lai launched Sharp Daily (Shuang Bao in mandarin), a free daily newspaper targeting Taipei commuters. The company also launched Me!
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Magazine in Taiwan.
In building Taiwan's most popular newspaper, Apple Daily, and magazine, Next Magazine, Lai's racy publications have had a great impact on the island's hitherto staid media culture.
During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, Lai started the Internet-based grocery retailer which offered home delivery service, adMart. It expanded its product scope beyond groceries to include electronics and office supplies but was shut down after losing between $100 and $150 million.
Lai attributed this business failure to overconfidence and the lack of a viable business strategy. Admart.Asia (www.Admart.Asia), a popular free classifieds website covering Asia, is now no longer associated with Lai.
In 2011, NextMedia reportedly sold 70% stake of NextMedia's subsidiary Colored World Holdings (CWH, incorporated in the British Virgin Islands) to Sum Tat Ventures (STV, incorporated in the British Virgin Islands), a private company 100% owned by Jimmy Lai. CWH was estimated to have net asset value of US$6.1 million.
STV paid US$100 million in cash for 70% stake of CWH. In 2013, STV paid another US$20 million in cash for the remaining 30% stake of CWH. CWH itself had its assets sold in 2011, and ceased operation in 2011. Thus, in total, STV paid US$120 million in cash for CWH.
Very little information is available for STV. However, on Jimmy Lai's Form 3B disclosure form, STV is listed as having the same correspondence address as NextMedia, at 1/F., 8 Chun Ying Street, Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate, Tsueng Kwan O, NT, Hong Kong. The purchase of CWH was largely seen as a transfer of cash from Lai to NextMedia to offset NextMedia's continual losses during that time, and to boost assets as collateral for NextMedia to obtain additional loans in the future.
However, as US$120 million is approximately 1/10 of Lai's net worth, some speculate real liquidity of Lai's personal assets, and whether Lai made other loan guarantees to obtain such an amount.
Near end of 2013, Lai spent approximately US$73 million (or NT$2.3 Billion) to purchase 2% stake (~17 million shares) in Taiwanese electronics manufacturer HTC.
Lai's support for Occupy Central and pro-democracy movements has proved controversial with the Chinese government.
On 13 December 2014, Lai was arrested, along with other pro-democratic leaders, during the clearance of the Admiralty protest site of the Umbrella movement. The following day, Lai announced he would step down as head of Next Media "so as to spend more time with his family and further pursue his personal interests".
Among other attacks, he has had machetes, axes and threatening messages left in his driveway, has been rammed by a car and has had his home firebombed several times (most recently in 2015).
Some suspect this is due to the activist, pro-democracy nature of his media outlets, which the Chinese government disapproves of. Next Media spokesman Mark Simon claims that "This is a continual effort to intimidate the press in Hong Kong. This is raw and pure intimidation." Though the attack was denounced by Hong Kong's Secretary for Justice, pro-democracy activists feel that the Hong Kong police and the government (which has been Chinese-controlled since the handover in 1997) do not always follow up on acts against Apple Daily or the democracy movement, and that culprits are rarely found.
During the early hours of 12 January 2015, two masked men hurled petrol bombs at Lai's home on Kadoorie Avenue in Kowloon Tong.
At the same time, a petrol bomb was thrown at the Next Media headquarters in Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate. The fires were extinguished by security guards.
The perpetrators fled and two cars used in the attacks were found torched in Shek Kip Mei and Cheung Sha Wan. The crimes were denounced as an "attack on press freedom".
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Forbes.com. 11 February 2008.
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Forbes. 19 October 2006.
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South China Morning Post.
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Hong Kong Newspapers : 香港報紙列表
"Firebombs hurled at home of Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai and Next Media HQ in 'attack on press freedom'". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 13 January 2015.