One of the ads that introduced the newspaper to the world prompted Lai to point out the subtlest of ways: showing Lai sitting in a dark warehouse with a red apple on a scalp, entangled with incoming arrows fired by a shadowy figure.
Since then, Lai's role as one of Hong Kong's most famous Russians has threatened his wealth, threatened him with death, and made him a symbol of the tensions of mainland China.
When Great Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, the city received its legal system and certain democratic freedoms by 2047, when it is likely to return to Beijing altogether. In the last three months, millions have flooded Hong Kong's highways in campaigns against Beijing's attack on these precious freedoms.
Apple Daily has become the largest official champion of the city in this movement. Protesters' newspaper. His rigorous front pages make citizens go out and march, he hands out posters that will raise demonstrations and regularly mocks the government for its failures.
In the city of tycoons, Lai is the only multimillionaire who seems willing to openly threaten his wealth for Hong Kong freedom. The 70-year-old is often observed on marches, with heavy rain or hot summer heat.
It is undeniable that Lai has ties to the US . Last month, he flew to Washington to discuss with US Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Advisor John Bolton how basic Hong Kong's freedom is to confronting the United States with China.
"The New Cold War is, in fact, a rivalry of competing values," says Lai, defining the current US-China trade war as opposing democracy and authoritarianism. "We in Hong Kong are fighting for the shared values of the United States against China. We are fighting their war in the enemy camp."
Lai says he's ready to die.
Lai is already living an unusual life by the time he founded the Next Digital group, which owns Apple Daily, in the 1980s.
By the time the Great Famine had conquered mainland China in 1960, Lai was smuggled from the southern mainland to Guangdong and into Hong Kong at the bottom of a fishing boat. He arrived in town at the age of 12 and was dirt poor.
Lai says he turned into a weird job in a textile factory making $ 60 Hong Kong ($ 7) a month and living in an apartment with 10 others in the Sham Shui Po neighborhood – still one of Hong Kong's poorest areas.
On his first day, he remembers how his colleagues took him for breakfast. The relief from "hunger anxiety" was unbearable, Lai says. "This freedom was the first feeling I had for Hong Kong and it never disappointed me," Lai says. "Never, ever."
After the Communists took over China in 1949, Hong Kong's population swelled by 1,000 per day in the 1950s after Chinese migrants crossed the border. Most are survivors and enterprising survivors, ready to take risks, Lai recalls. His twin sister was one of the so-called Freedom Swimmers who literally sailed from China to the city. She became a major entrepreneur in Canada.
"Hong Kong was a land of opportunity," Lai says of that era.
Within two decades, Lai had learned English, made his way up the factory floor to a salesman position, and decided to start his own retail business. On a trip to New York during the sampling season, he bought pizza. The name of the napkin was Giordano.
This became the name of his wildly successful, casual menswear chain that made Lai his first fortune.
"He is kind of a legend in terms of your business success, ”says Clement So, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism at Hong Kong University of China. "Not only for what you did in the news, but in other types of industry."
Business thrived, but in the late 1980s, two things happened that would ruin the course of Lai's life.
Lai says that he was not political at the time, "but I have always had a very longing for freedom because of my experience in China."
Hong Kong was still under British rule, but a barrier to reunification with China in 1997. While the city was watching Tiananmen's horror, Giordano began producing t-shirts with students' slogans.
At about the same time, Lai says he divorced his first wife. "I thought I was a very fit person," he says. "It was shocking to me."
Shortly afterwards, Lai was interviewed by local journalist Teresa Lai. The couple fell in love and got married. He then became a media baron.
Apple of the Day
Today, Lai lives in a gated white house in the upper corner of Kowloon. Security officers are located outside the property. The rival paper paparazzi take photos of everyone who leaves and enters, putting pressure on Lai's privacy and looking for signs that he is dating pro-American figures.
Inside, the melodious Chinese hwamei birds flutter in high white cells, dramatic works of art adorn the walls, while giant bromeliads and orchids light up every corner. "I love flowers," says Lai, with interrupted top-notch British-style clips while enjoying a breakfast of strawberries and egg sandwiches served on China dishes.
The figure he cuts at home, regularly hosting politicians, journalists and influential figures discussing Hong Kong's democratic future – or lack thereof – is in stark contrast to his reputation as a bold, instinct-driven former factory manager , whose formal education was completed in primary school.
Beijing replied then as it can now.
"My nature is to be a rebel – to be a revolutionary," Lai says. "I express it in business. Whenever I do business, I create something different from the norm. That's why I succeed more than other people. I don't believe in incremental improvement."
He applied the mass market of Giordano in his newspaper: It was low-cost, populist and sensational. Visually modeled on USA Today, it "rocked the media landscape in Hong Kong in a revolutionary way," said Clement So, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University. The paper was not interested in balanced reporting: It was advocacy journalism, with a heavy dose of cheeky gossip about celebrities.
At news stands, Lai stirred up a price war across the city, practically giving away a sensational headline to two Hong Kong dollars (25 cents), with price sellers forced to sell it. "Other documents quickly imitate without much success," says So. "The style of writing, the use of big pictures. Strangulation. Everything. There was a term called 'Apple-ization'.
The newspaper became the most talked about market in the city – a reputation that maintains its innovative platform, Apple Extra, which controversially animate short news from homicides to protests, and the Taiwanese, self-governing Chinese democracy claiming Beijing as its territory has been a huge success, "Apple Daily was very lucrative at first," said Will Lam, a professor of history at the University of China at Hong Kong.
With other media tycoons reluctant to risk a commercial outburst in Beijing after 1997, Apple Daily has become the only edition of the city to regularly criticize China. "They were so afraid of the Communists, they left me an independent media market almost on their own," Lai says.
The newspaper's uncompromising stance, which critics say may lack the editorial balance to include an opponent's viewpoint, coincides with a series of Hong Kong media outlets that are becoming increasingly pro-Beijing.
"Generally, today, people choose their media based on their political affiliation," says Michael Tien, a Beijing MP and fellow textile tycoon whose G2000 clothing chain has more than 700 outlets worldwide. This echo chamber, in turn, has led Hong Kong society to become more polarized, even between "husband and wife, between parents and children, between friends," Tien says.
"Nobody trusts the media. You don't trust the police. They don't trust the government," Tien says.
Fragmentation of society is a topic of current concern as protesters and police face a series of violent clashes, reported from many different perspectives in the media.
Some Hong Kong people returned Beijing. Many of them are democratic. Others describe themselves as a "blue ribbon", which means they support the police. Proponents of the movement and more liberal people define it as a "yellow ribbon".
Many make sense of identifying themselves as Hong Kong rather than broadly Chinese, in order to distinguish their identities from those living across the border – the birthplace of many of their parents or grandparents.
For Lai, and Hong Kong is one of the small Chinese islands that shares the values of the West. "Hong Kong's identity this time … really came into our minds," he says. "We identify as Hong Kong as never before."
Black Hand for the United States
In early 2018, a 19-year-old Hong Kong resident claimed to have killed his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan and returned to the city before being arrested. The Taiwanese police had nothing; Hong Kong did not have an extradition agreement with Taiwan or other Chinese territory.
Lai was in the United States when the bill was announced and was warned by an American politician for breakfast about the danger it posed. "I was really alarmed," Lai recalls. "I looked at him again and said, 'Damn, that's awful.' I knew it would be a big thing. "
He was right. The bill ended nearly three months of often violent demonstrations in Hong Kong, with more than 800 mostly young people arrested on charges, including riots. Protesters paralyzed the city's airport twice.
many of his defining moments seem to have been set on fire by America.The name "Giordano" comes from a New York pizza parlor; when the brand initially struggled to make money, a trip to McDonald's inspired Lai to optimize his offerings as he did The Rick Daily Burger Chain; Apple Daily was created on the USA Today model.
His top aide in Hong Kong, Mark Simon, is the son of a former CIA spy.
This last detail never fails to torment viewers. One of the key allegations against Lai is that he is an employee of the CIA and Apple Daily is a tool of the United States.
Earlier this month, state-run Chinese media labeled Lai and three other prominent pro-democracy figures in the city as "The Gang of Four" in Hong Kong – a reference to a group that tried to take down Mao Zed Mr and seize power from the Communist Party in 70 years.
People Daily claims that Lai is part of a quartet of "secret mediators and modern traitors" as Beijing tried to blame foreign disturbances in Hong Kong.
The Beijing Tien bill, on the one hand, believes that Washington is making money in the Hong Kong democracy movement to provide "uninterrupted power to destabilize China," although it acknowledges that there is no evidence to support this claim. .
Lai calls the idea of a US-funded color revolution "ridiculous."
"If the United States funded this, the evidence would be so obvious," he says. "You can't even find one person to stand up and say, 'Hey, I have money from the US. "
But he views Washington as a key ally for Hong Kong – as this early warning of the extradition bill turned out to be. When Lai returned from this trip, he began to raise the alarm. He said that journalists were not too dissolved at first.  Hong Kong Chief Executive Kerry Lam shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after swearing in as territory leader in 2017. ” data-src-mini=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190821162654-01-carrie-lam-xi-jinping-file-small-169.jpg” data-src-xsmall=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190821162654-01-carrie-lam-xi-jinping-file-medium-plus-169.jpg” data-src-small=”http://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190821162654-01-carrie-lam-xi-jinping-file-large-169.jpg” data-src-medium=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190821162654-01-carrie-lam-xi-jinping-file-exlarge-169.jpg” data-src-large=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190821162654-01-carrie-lam-xi-jinping-file-super-169.jpg” data-src-full16x9=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190821162654-01-carrie-lam-xi-jinping-file-full-169.jpg” data-src-mini1x1=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190821162654-01-carrie-lam-xi-jinping-file-small-11.jpg” data-demand-load=”not-loaded” data-eq-pts=”mini: 0, xsmall: 221, small: 308, medium: 461, large: 781″ src=”data:image/gif;base64,R0lGODlhEAAJAJEAAAAAAP///////wAAACH5BAEAAAIALAAAAAAQAAkAAAIKlI+py+0Po5yUFQA7″/>
Lam gasped forwards.
The marches went on: 160,000 people, then 1 million, but the bill remained ready to cross the city's top Legco Legislature in early June, with approximately 2 million finally taking to the streets. June 16th. The bill was suspended, but it was too late to quell the anger that had stirred up.
Тиен признава, че е малко вероятно Вашингтон да е проектирал марш от 2 – но тъй като демонстрантите все по-често размахват американски знамена в протестите – нещо, което Лай казва, е просто игра на публичност, за да привлече международни ТВ камери – про-пекинският политик иска независимо проучване дали ЦРУ финансира цветна революция в града.
Висш служител на администрацията на САЩ отрече Вашингтон да спонсорира или подбужда към демонстрациите, а президентът Доналд Тръмп също се появи, за да отхвърли предложението миналата седмица, когато туитира, че „мнозина ме обвиняват, а САЩ, за проблемите, които се случват в Хонконг. Не мога да си представя защо? "
Свобода над богатството
Основаването на Apple Daily и поемането на борбата за демокрация на Хонконг даде на Лай" смисъл в живота, който никога не съм имал “като текстилен магнат. „Мисията – казва той – има толкова прекрасно значение“.
Другите магнати в града избягват да се впускат в кризата. "Ако сте бизнес човек в Хонконг, е трудно да избегнете пазара в Китай", казва Лам, професорът по история. "И след като сте на китайския пазар, вашата инвестиция се превръща в заложник, което китайското правителство никога не се срамува да използва като средство за упражняване на влияние."
Най-близкият човек, най-богатият човек в Хонконг Ли Ка-шинг, който си заслужава над 31 милиарда долара според Forbes, трябва да коментира политическата криза беше публикуването на две криптични съобщения в много от градските вестници този месец (Apple Daily не беше един от тях). Изключителният характер на съветите му да проявяват предпазливост беше безпогрешен – в целия град читателите спекулираха дали той се обръща към протестиращите или Пекин, или и двете.
"Никой друг магнат не е готов" да бъде толкова откровен срещу Китай като Лай, казва Климент Со, професор от Китайския университет в Хонконг. "Това е, което направи Лай толкова уникален."
Тази откровеност не идва без опасности.
През 2015 г. коктейлите Молотов бяха хвърлени в централата на Next Media и дома на Лай в ранните сутрешни часове. "Ние не сме шокирани. За съжаление насилието се превърна в редовна черта на Хонконг сега в политическия дискурс. Това е просто прост факт", заяви Марк Саймън, асистентът на Лай пред CNN по това време.
Днес Лай има личен детайл по сигурността в дома си, но самопризнаният смутител казва, че никога не е забравял какво е да си беден и няма намерение да изостави масите в кръстоносния поход, които споделят с него за демокрацията.
„Младите хора не виждат бъдеще за себе си – всичко е скъпо“, казва Лай. "Дори да живеят в малка стая е твърде скъпо за тях." Страната от възможности, в която процъфтяват предприемачи като Лай и Ли Ка-Шинг, когато пристигнаха в Хонконг, отдавна е изчезнала.
„С този закон за екстрадиция хората си мислеха: Добре, това е последната слама, ние трябва да се борим. Имаме да се бие пред тази последна граница “, казва той.
Тази борба може да не е добра за финансите на Apple Daily.