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Jimmy Lai is seen handcuffed as he exits a prison van at Lai Chi Kok Reception Center on December 3, 2020 in Hong Kong, China. Jimmy lai was arrested for fraud and was denied bail today at a court hearing.
Vernon Yuen–NurPhoto/Getty Images

Hong Kong media tycoon and prominent pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai is being charged with foreign collusion under the city’s sweeping national security law, a move likely to prompt further international criticism of China’s political crackdown on the former British colony.

The charges were reported by local media on Friday and appeared to later be confirmed by police in a statement that didn’t specifically mention Lai by name, as per the force’s typical practice.

“After in-depth investigation by National Security Department of Hong Kong Police, a 73-year-old man was charged with an additional offense of ‘collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security,’” the police said, adding the case “will be mentioned” at the West Kowloon Magistracy on Saturday morning.

In early December, Lai, the 73-year-old founder of Next Digital and owner of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, was denied bail on new charges relating to his dramatic August arrest under Hong Kong’s controversial new security measures.

The formal charges under the national security law, which Beijing forced on the city in late June after bypassing the local legislature, could prompt further criticism from the U.S. and the U.K., which have both criticized the law as an erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Chinese and Hong Kong officials have defended the law as necessary to restore stability to the Asian financial hub after it was rocked by sometimes-violent protests throughout 2019.

Shares of Next Digital climbed 18% in afternoon trading after the reports Lai was to be charged. Hong Kong residents have piled into shares of the company to show support for Lai, including a more than 1,100% surge in two days after his arrest in August that propelled the stock to a seven-year high.

International Outcry

Lai is a prominent critic of Beijing and Hong Kong’s authorities, while his Apple Daily newspaper has vigorously championed the city’s protest movement. In an interview with Bloomberg TV in late May, he called on U.S. President Donald Trump to hammer Hong Kong’s economy to punish authorities for their imposition of the national security law.

“Our only salvation is for President Donald Trump to impose sanctions,” he said at the time, adding that the most impactful initial move would be to freeze the bank accounts of top Chinese officials. “We are very hopeful that by the weekend he will impose very draconian sanctions on China.”

His arrest and a dramatic police raid on the Apple Daily’s newsroom in August prompted an outcry from foreign governments including the U.K., which said the law was being used to crack down on press freedoms in the former British colony.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said at the time that Lai’s arrest was “further evidence that the national security law is being used as a pretext to silence opposition.”

A group of western envoys wrote an open letter in November condemning the erosion of media freedoms in the Asian financial hub, a situation they said had been worsened by Beijing’s imposition of the “vaguely defined” national security law.

–With assistance from Sheridan Prasso, Alfred Liu and Sofia Horta e Costa.

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