Notre Dame has had an ambivalent relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Not so long ago, some naïve university leaders pushed the egregious proposal for Notre Dame to establish a liberal arts college in China in collaboration with a state-sponsored university. Fortunately, good sense eventually prevailed, and Notre Dame avoided entrapment in what would have been a thoroughly compromised project. Yet, Notre Dame still maintains its Beijing Global Gateway along with various collaborative endeavors in China.
Perhaps as a result, the university has been cautious in speaking out about the gross human rights abuses occurring in China today. Few statements have been made about either the horrifying treatment to which the Uighur Muslims have been subjected or the enhanced and brutal repression meted out to groups like Tibetan Buddhists, various Christian denominations and other religious minorities as Xi Jinping has consolidated his power.
With the exemplary exception of some individual efforts by scholars like Professor Victoria Tin-bor Hui, little attention has been given at Notre Dame to the annihilation of Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy. Few have spoken up against the mass arrests and the imprisonment and torture of political dissidents there. A significant number of those who have protested the Beijing regime’s repression in Hong Kong are Catholics, and prominent in their number is Jimmy Lai, who has refused to bow to the communists’ dictates.
Mr. Lai is best known as the founder of the staunchly pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, which has now been closed. Presently he is confined in Stanley Prison in Hong Kong, facing trumped up charges ranging from sedition to colluding with foreign powers. Eventually he will be given some kind of show trial. He faces life imprisonment for his refusal to bow to the edicts of the acolytes of Xi Jinping.
Jimmy Lai’s only real ‘offense’ has been to speak the truth about realities in Hong Kong. He is a Catholic convert whose deep faith has nourished him to stand strong in the face of arrest and imprisonment. He draws inspiration from and has been compared to Saint Thomas More. His courageous witness in defense of political freedoms and human rights deserves to be recognized. Notre Dame can lead in doing so.
The time is right for Notre Dame to do for Jimmy Lai what Fr. Theodore Hesburgh did for Lech Walesa at the 1982 commencement, at a time when the great Polish leader of the Solidarity trade union movement was imprisoned by the Soviet-backed Polish regime. He received an honorary degree in absentia with the Solidarity flag draped over an empty chair. The citation described Walesa as “a man who has shown the world … that ideas can be outlawed, movements crushed and people imprisoned, but the human instinct for freedom and dignity can never be suppressed.”
A similar recognition should be accorded to Jimmy Lai so that the world’s best-known Catholic university honors a courageous Chinese Catholic and, by extension, all those who share his commitment to democracy and human rights.
If Notre Dame honored Jimmy Lai, it might also prompt the Holy See to stand more strongly in its commitment to religious freedom in China and to speak up more courageously for human rights in that country. The Vatican’s notorious pact with Beijing, in which the Pope agreed to share power over the selection of Chinese bishops with the Communist dictators, has been a gross embarrassment to the whole Church.
It must be understood that honoring Jimmy Lai might come at some cost. The Chinese regime won’t be pleased. It seeks to punish and intimidate those who offend them. And those American corporate interests who have made billions out of their collaboration with China will assuredly express private reservations, possibly through influential trustees. Perhaps Notre Dame’s corporate partner, NBC, which will showcase (if that be the term) China’s supposed achievements through their Winter Olympics coverage, might also be offended. So be it.
This would be an opportunity for Notre Dame to demonstrate that its disposition is one of courage and not of appeasement before either the CCP or corporate interests. Notre Dame could demonstrate compellingly that it is a place where taking a stand on principle and in defense of truth-tellers means something.
Perhaps Notre Dame could set an example for Catholic universities in the United States and throughout the world. They too might follow our university’s lead and demonstrate support for Jimmy Lai and for all those in China—Catholics and non-Catholics alike—who undergo daily intimidation and persecution.
Honoring Jimmy Lai assuredly will convey to Notre Dame students that there is much more to a life well lived than making money or finding a well-remunerated but compliant place within a woke corporation with extensive business interests in the PRC. It would offer a powerful lesson about the need to fight hard for democratic freedoms no matter the cost. Perhaps at this time on American campuses, where so many students feel they are unable to express their true views because of the social and economic consequences of expressing one’s honest thoughts, Jimmy Lai could stand as an exemplar for expressing one’s beliefs courageously.
Jimmy Lai’s life will tell Notre Dame students that standing up for faith and freedom matters. Perhaps his notable example will, in its own way, encourage the graduating students to stand with him in how they live and in what they value.
In 1982, when Provost Tim O’Meara completed the reading of Lech Walesa’s honorary degree citation, the Notre Dame commencement assembly rose as one and gave that great defender of freedom a rousing and prolonged standing ovation. Perhaps we could do the same this May for Jimmy Lai and make the applause long and loud enough that it might be heard in both Hong Kong and in Beijing.
Father Wilson D. (Bill) Miscamble, C.S.C. is a professor of history and a faculty advisor for The Irish Rover.
Featured art: Thomas Allom (1804-1872), “The Tung-Ting [Dongting] Shan”, appears in “China: in a series of views, displaying the scenery…, vol. 1”, London, Paris: Fisher, Son, & Co., c. 1843
Editor’s note: Jimmy Lai is presently held in Stanley Prison in Hong Kong and not in a mainland jail as initially stated. This has been corrected in the online edition. We apologize for any inconvenience.