Amy Lai wins 2021 PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize for Freedom of Expression

PEN Canada press release

The journalist and legal scholar Amy Lai has been awarded the 2021 PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize for courageously reporting on the “threats faced by both individuals and democratic institutions” in her native Hong Kong, and for ground-breaking scholarship on freedom of expression.

Lai’s critical reporting on China’s crackdown on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the South China Morning Post, and in the recently closed Apple Daily tabloid newspaper. She has been particularly outspoken since Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement began in 2019, and after the passage of the controversial National Security Law which notionally grants Beijing the power to prosecute its critics, including foreign nationals, anywhere in the world.

In a Globe and Mail Op-Ed, Ms. Lai argues that the closure of Apple Daily “should be a wake-up call for Canadians who still hold naive, misinformed visions of China as a free, peace-loving country.” She warns that “China’s aggression is never contained within its borders; it has sought to export its authoritarianism across the Pacific, for instance, by infiltrating Canadian Chinese-language media to eradicate criticisms of Beijing and by disrupting Hong Kongers’ protests on Canadian soil. Conflating criticism of China with promotion of anti-Asian racism, in particular, plays into the hands of the Chinese government, whose goal is to quash meaningful debate in Western countries.

Lai is the author of “The Right to Parody” (Cambridge University Press, 2019), and a forthcoming book that defends freedom of expression in Western academia, including Canadian universities. In the former, Lai argues for broad exceptions that would prevent the suppression of parody under the pretext of copyright protection. In the latter, she warns of the radicalization that can result from suppressing debate on sensitive matters even when it is thoughtful and respectful. Lai argues that institutions of higher learning must resist the “cancel culture” that is, ironically, reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution which some of her distant relatives lived through. Her scholarship has already earned her an Open Inquiry “Exceptional Scholarship” Award from the Heterodox Academy, a New York-based nonprofit of professors, school administrators and other professional educators.

One jury member praised Lai for “considerable fortitude in exercising her right to freedom of expression, not in furtherance of her own goals but in defending the rights of everyone in Hong Kong. The jury unanimously agreed that “of all the nominees, she best displayed the value the Filkow Prize celebrates, which is to advance freedom of expression in Canada.”

The PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize is named in memory of Kenneth A. Filkow, Q.C., a distinguished Winnipeg lawyer, former chair of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, and an active member of PEN Canada’s Canadian Issues Committee. The prize is funded by Cynthia Wine, and former PEN Canada President, Philip Slayton. Previous winners include Canadian journalists Justin Brake and Desmond Cole, the Bangladeshi author and blogger Raihan Abir, and the artist and environmentalist, Franke James.

Ms. Lai currently teaches freedom of expression, among other topics, at Freie Universitat in Berlin.