HONG KONG • Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai yesterday became the highest-profile person in the Chinese-ruled city to be arrested under a new national security law, detained over suspected collusion with foreign forces as 200 police searched the offices of his Apple Daily newspaper.
Lai, 71, has been one of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activists and an ardent critic of Beijing, which imposed the sweeping new law on the city on June 30, drawing condemnation from Western countries.
His arrest comes amid Beijing’s crackdown against pro-democracy opposition in the city and further stokes concerns about media and other freedoms promised to the former British colony when it was returned to China in 1997.
Lai’s arrest “bears out the worst fears that Hong Kong’s National Security Law would be used to suppress critical pro-democracy opinion and restrict press freedom”, said Mr Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Mr Ryan Law, chief editor of Apple Daily, a staunch anti-government and pro-democracy tabloid that also does investigative work, said the paper would not be intimidated. “Business as usual,” he said.
The security law punishes anything China considers subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison. Critics say it crushes freedoms, while supporters say it will bring stability after prolonged pro-democracy protests last year.
Lai had been a frequent visitor to Washington, where he has met officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor”.
Chinese state media said Beijing supports Lai’s arrest, stressing the need to “severely punish” those who collude with foreign forces to endanger national security.
Lai was a representative of people who were “anti-China, anti-Hong Kong” and who were a danger that must be removed before there could be peace in Hong Kong, a spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office told the Xinhua agency yesterday.
Police said they had arrested 10 people, aged between 23 and 72, on suspicion of breaching the new security law. Activist Agnes Chow was among those held, according to a police source and her verified Facebook account.
Apple Daily reported that Lai had been taken from his home early yesterday. He was taken back to the office later in handcuffs.
WORST FEARS REALISED
The arrest bears out the worst fears that Hong Kong’s National Security Law would be used to suppress critical pro-democracy opinion and restrict press freedom.
MR STEVEN BUTLER, Asia programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, on the arrest of Jimmy Lai.
“We can’t worry that much, we can only go with the flow,” he said, before being escorted away.
Police said around 200 officers entered the premises with a court warrant and collected 25 boxes of evidence. The law allows police to search premises without one “under exceptional circumstances”, and for documents, equipment and financial assets to be seized.
Apple Daily reported that one of Lai’s sons, Ian, had also been arrested at his home and later showed his restaurant, Cafe Seasons, being raided by police.
Shares in the media company Next Digital, which publishes Apple Daily, plunged 16.7 per cent before rebounding to trade 344 per cent higher as online pro-democracy forums called on investors to buy shares as a show of support.
An Apple Daily source said other senior executives were among those targeted. Executive director Cheung Kim Hung was seen escorted by police out of the building.
“We see this as straight harassment,” the source said, adding that Lai was arrested on suspicion of sedition, criminal fraud and colluding with foreign forces.
In a statement, Next Media Trade Union called the search “an extremely rare and serious incident in Hong Kong history”, with a “catastrophic” impact.
Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Chris Yeung said the search was akin to “Third World” press freedom suppression.
Apple Daily executive Chan Pui Man said the newspaper would still be published today.
Lai had also been arrested this year on illegal assembly charges, along with other leading activists, relating to protests last year.
The United States had last Friday imposed sanctions on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and other officials, drawing mockery and condemnation from Beijing.
The arrest reflects that Hong Kong “wasn’t intimidated” by sanctions, Global Times editor Hu Xijin tweeted. Global Times is published by China’s Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily.