The new national security regime installed by Beijing in Hong Kong has been used to arrest one of the city’s best-known advocates for democracy, with hundreds of police arresting media tycoon Jimmy Lai and raiding his newspaper’s headquarters.
Mr. Lai, a billionaire who has enraged Beijing with his open criticism of the Communist Party, was taken in handcuffs from his home early Monday. He is accused of colluding with foreign powers, a new crime under a national security law imposed on Hong Kong July 1. Police also arrested two of Mr. Lai’s sons and two of his top executives, Cheung Kim-hung, the chief executive of the Next Digital media company, and Chow Tat-kuen, the company’s chief financial officer. At least nine people were arrested, police said. Mr. Lai is the founder and majority owner of Next Digital, which publishes newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai …
Some 200 police were deployed for the operation, which included a raid of Apple Daily, the newspaper he founded. Police seized some 20 boxes of goods, Apple Daily reported, saying officers also sought to seize corporate servers — a move staff attempted to block, since those servers contained internal newsgathering information. The search continued into Monday evening. A live video stream showed officers questioning reporters and examining papers on their desks.
The arrests marked a new stage in the changes sweeping Hong Kong, as Beijing asserts greater control. Over the summer, pro-democracy scholars have been fired, legislative candidates have been disqualified, an upcoming election was delayed by a year and publishers and libraries alike have rushed to censor content now considered subversive or secessionist. Police have outlawed slogans and songs, and arrested young people carrying flags calling for Hong Kong independence.
Mr. Lai numbers among Beijing’s most-hated figures in Hong Kong, a man who has used his social standing and his wealth in service of democracy — unlike other billionaires in the city, many of whom have been unwilling to risk the financial consequences for angering Chinese leadership. Mr. Lai has been called a “traitor” and a “force of evil” by China’s Communist Party-controlled press. In April, he was among 15 people arrested on charges of organizing and participating in protests — which police called unlawful assembles — that roiled Hong Kong last year. In late July, he reported being followed by unknown people.
Last week, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and 10 city officials. China on Monday responded with sanctions against 11 U.S. officials, including senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
In the midst of the deepening rift between Beijing and Washington, the Hong Kong Liaison Office, which represents the mainland in the city, lashed out at people in Hong Kong it accused of celebrating the imposition of sanctions on the city’s officials.
“These people are unabashedly arrogant and once again unintentionally revealed their own evil design — that they are the agents the U.S. deploys in Hong Kong, and they are the pawns of the U.S. in messing up Hong Kong,” the office wrote in a statement Monday.
“These people have completely betrayed and walked away from their country and nationality,” the statement said, adding: “These people are doomed to be indelibly nailed to the pillar of shame in our history.”
The statement did not name Mr. Lai, who has openly called for the backing of western democracies for democracy advocates in Hong Kong, including in a May 29 New York Times article, in which he presaged his own imprisonment and wrote: “as we enter this new phase of our struggle, we need the support of the West, especially the United States.” Last year, Mr,. Lai travelled to Washington, D.C. to meet with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
On Twitter, Mr. Lai has pilloried Chinese president Xi Jinping, calling him “the most absolute dictator in human history,” praised Mr. Pompeo for his critique of Chinese leadership and raised alarm over the national security law that has now ensnared him.
Hong Kong “is under siege,” Mr. Lai wrote July 29. A day later, he said the city is now “worse than China.” Many in Hong Kong share western values and believe in human rights, “and our dignity instinctively rebels against tyranny,” he said. As a result, he predicted, Hong Kong is perceived by Beijing “like Xinjiang and will be treated so.”
Xinjiang is the northwestern region of China where authorities have played large numbers of people, many of them Muslim Uyghurs, in centres for forced political indoctrination and skills training.
Leaders in Hong Kong and Beijing have sought to reassure the public that the national security law would affect only a small number of people who pose a genuine threat.
But with the arrest of Mr. Lai, “the message is clear that this is a law that is not just meant for spies and bomb-makers,” said Michael Vidler, a Hong Kong solicitor who has represented some of the city’s most prominent democracy activists.
Instead, it can be used against “anybody who is perceived by Hong Kong authorities to be speaking out.”
Mr. Lai was arrested 40 days after the national security law was set in place.
“It is just so terribly sad to see, in such a short period of time, Hong Kong apparently tumbling over the abyss,” Mr. Vidler said.
The new law also pledges to protect freedoms of speech and of the press.
But the arrest of Mr. Lai and other executives, “and the raid on the newsroom, are a direct assault on Hong Kong’s press freedom and signal a dark new phase in the erosion of the city’s global reputation,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, said in a statement.
“Today’s events raise worries that such actions are being used to erase basic freedoms in Hong Kong.”
The formal charges against Mr. Lai may accuse him of breaking the law on foreign collusion. But the “surprise attack” against him, his family and his company “actually reflects the government’s intention to contain and control the media and publishing freedoms in Hong Kong,” said Wu Qiang, a former Tsinghua University scholar who is an expert in Chinese social movements.
“In short, Beijing’s definition of national security doesn’t leave any room for freedom, and Beijing wants Hong Kong people and the world to hear it clearly.”
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