Hong Kong police arrested media tycoon Jimmy Lai and raided the offices of his flagship newspaper, the most high-profile case yet against democracy activists in the city under a national security law that has fueled U.S.-China tensions.
Lai was shown handcuffed as he was taken away by officers from his home on Monday morning, according to a live feed broadcast by his media network Next Digital Ltd. When a reporter asked Lai for his views on the arrest, he answered: “What views do I have? They want to arrest me.”
Police said that seven people ages 39 to 72 had been arrested on suspicion of “breaches” of the security legislation, with offenses including collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security. An investigation is underway, it said. While the force didn’t name any of the people arrested, Lai is 72 years old.
Lai’s arrest was reported by Apple Daily, the flagship newspaper under Next Digital. Others taken in included Lai’s two sons and other top members of Next Digital, Oriental Daily reported, citing unidentified people.
Apple Daily reported mid-morning that nearly 200 officers were entering their offices. The Hong Kong police said on Facebook that they had obtained a court-issued search warrant to enter a building in the Tseung Kwan O neighborhood — where Next Digital’s offices are located — to investigate crimes endangering national security. They did not mention Apple Daily in the post.
“Because this is a media company, we are aware that there may be journalistic material involved,” Li Kwai-wah, senior superintendent of the police force’s national security department said at briefing outside the office building. “So my officers and I conducted a preliminary investigation to find out which premises we may not search — for example, the assignment and reporting desks. If there is a possibility that there would be news materials there, we will not conduct a search.”
Lai was shown being walked around the Apple Daily office in the Next Digital live feed, and said police had showed him the warrant.
Shares in Next Digital fell as much as 16.7% to the lowest level on record Monday morning following reports of the arrests.
China has called the sweeping security legislation, which bars subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, a “sword of Damocles” hanging over the heads of its most outspoken critics. It has prompted fears among activists and foreign governments that it will be used to silence basic freedoms in the city.
“With the passage of the national security law, Beijing has launched a full-blown rectification of Hong Kong,” said Carl Minzner, a law professor at Fordham Law School and author of “End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise.” “The ultimate goal is the ‘mainland-ization‘ of Hong Kong — welding it more tightly to China and neutering all political and social elements that Party authorities view as problematic.”
The U.S. has led foreign governments in expressing concern over the security law, saying Hong Kong could no longer be considered sufficiently autonomous from the mainland. It has revoked some special trading privileges, which help underpin the city’s reputation as an international business hub, and sanctioned Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other officials.
The Trump administration also reacted strongly after Hong Kong barred a dozen pro-democracy lawmakers from campaigning for office and then delayed by one year legislative elections scheduled for September. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, is meeting in Beijing and is expected to discuss issues arising from postponement of Hong Kong’s election this week.
It wasn’t clear whether four sitting lawmakers who were disqualified from campaigning for the election would be allowed to remain for the legislature’s extended term. The South China Morning Post reported Monday, citing sources, that they would be allowed to stay after Lam told the central government that they should extend the terms of all legislators.
In a joint statement over the weekend by the countries making up the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and the foreign ministers of the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand said they were “gravely concerned” by the disqualifications and election postponement.
“These moves have undermined the democratic process that has been fundamental to Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity,” the statement said. “We express deep concern at Beijing’s imposition of the new National Security Law, which is eroding the Hong Kong people’s fundamental rights and liberties.”
‘What Can I Do?’
“We are a beacon for the idea of freedom and democracy,” Lai previously told Bloomberg Businessweek.
In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last week, Lai criticized the rushed implementation of the national security law and called it a “blunder” for the Chinese Communist Party, which he said was already struggling with China’s slowing economy.
“I’m followed, just this morning my driver told me that, you know, look at that young kid on the left side, he’s there every day, trying to see what time I leave home,” Lai said. “I can’t be scared. If I’m scared, what can I do? I cannot say anything, I cannot do anything. The most skillful thing that the CCP can do is to induce fear in you, to subdue you.”
Asked if his comments were a violation of the security law and risked him being arrested and brought to the mainland, Lai answered: “Yes.” But he said he wasn’t scared. “What can I do? Just keep quiet?”
Lai’s media group and Apple Daily backed the protests for meaningful elections that rocked the city last year, but it’s been years since he was seen as playing a central role in Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
He was arrested in February on suspicion of participating in an unlawful assembly in 2019 and intimidating a reporter two years before that, and granted police bail. In June, he was summoned to a Hong Kong court for helping incite a June 4 vigil marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Joshua Wong, one of the city’s most prominent activists, tweeted that he strongly condemned Lai’s arrest.
Hong Kong made its first arrests under the law — of a handful of protesters — the day after it was handed down. Lam has defended the national security law and called it the “most important” development in relations between Hong Kong and Beijing since the city’s handover to Chinese rule in 1997.
–With assistance from Karen Leigh and Kari Lindberg.