HONG KONG • Hong Kong’s Apple Daily has responded with defiance to the arrest of owner Jimmy Lai under a new national security law imposed by Beijing, vowing to fight on in a front-page headline yesterday over an image of Lai in handcuffs.
Readers had queued to get copies of the pro-democracy tabloid, following a raid of its offices by police on Monday. They also took Lai into detention – the highest-profile arrest under the national security law imposed on Hong Kong on June 30.
“Apple Daily must fight on”, the front-page headline read, amid fears that the new law erodes media freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory.
“The prayers and encouragement of many readers and writers make us believe that as long as there are readers, there will be writers, and that Apple Daily shall certainly fight on,” it said.
More than 500,000 copies were printed, against the usual 100,000, the paper said on its website.
Mainland-born Lai, who was smuggled into Hong Kong on a fishing boat when he was a penniless 12-year-old, is one of the most prominent democracy activists in the Chinese-ruled city and an ardent critic of Communist Party rule in Beijing.
His arrest comes amid a crackdown on the pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong that has drawn international criticism and raised fears for the freedoms promised by Beijing when the former British colony was returned to China’s rule in 1997.
The national security law punishes any act that China considers secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
The city’s government and Chinese authorities say the law is necessary to restore order after months of often violent anti-government protests last year, sparked by fears that China was slowly eroding the city’s freedoms.
Hong Kong has since become another source of contention between the United States and China, whose relations were already at their most strained in years over various issues, including trade, the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority and its claims in the South China Sea.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday called Lai a “patriot”, saying Beijing had “eviscerated” Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Britain said Lai’s arrest was further evidence that the security law was a “pretext to silence opposition”, to which China’s embassy replied by urging London to stop “using freedom of the press as an excuse to discredit” the law.
Police detained Lai, 71, for suspected collusion with foreign forces after about 200 officers searched the newspaper’s offices, collecting 25 boxes of evidence.
Handcuffed and apparently wearing the same clothes after spending the night in jail, Lai was driven by police yesterday to his yacht which police searched, media footage showed.
Beijing has labelled Lai a “traitor” in the past and issued a statement supporting his arrest.
The Beijing-backed China Daily newspaper said in an editorial that Lai’s arrest showed “the cost of dancing with the enemy”. The paper added that “justice delayed didn’t mean the absence of justice”.
Police arrested 10 people in all on Monday, including other Apple Daily executives and 23-year-old Agnes Chow, one of the former leaders of activist Joshua Wong’s Demosisto pro-democracy group. The group was disbanded before the new law came into force.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has managed to sustain broad support across the community.
Shares in Next Digital, which publishes Apple Daily, surged for a second day, gaining more than 2,078 per cent from last Friday’s close, after online pro-democracy forums called on investors to show their support.
Its market value rose as high as HK$5.17 billion (S$914 million), from some HK$200 million.
In the working-class neighbourhood of Mong Kok, dozens of people queued from as early as 2am to buy Lai’s paper.
In another show of support, long queues formed at lunch time at the Cafe Seasons restaurant owned by Lai’s son, Ian, who was also arrested on Monday.
Washington last week imposed sanctions on 11 top Hong Kong officials over what it said was their role in curtailing political freedoms in the city. China responded on Monday with sanctions on 11 top US legislators and others.