Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, son arrested under national security law, risk life jail term

Jimmy Lai
Hong Kong riot supporter Jimmy Lai (center) leaves the Kowloon City police station in Hong Kong on Friday after being arrested for taking part in an unauthorized assembly on August 31, 2019. Photo: AFP

Police on Monday arrested the media tycoon and activist Jimmy Lai, his sons and several executives of his publishing group for allegedly colluding with foreign forces, a crime punishable by life imprisonment under a sweeping national security law that China recently imposed on Hong Kong.

Officers arrived at the home of Lai and his sons, Mark Simon, a close aide and senior executive at Lai’s media group Next Digital, said in a tweet. Police were executing search warrants, Simon added. He said the alleged crime was foreign collusion. Next Digital is the parent company of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy news outlet critical of Beijing that Lai founded in 1995.

Shortly afterward, more than 200 police entered Next Digital’s offices, according to the company’s Facebook page and a live-stream of the raid, and searched Apple Daily’s newsroom. They rifled through reporters’ desks and papers, told employees to show identification cards, and warned journalists to stop filming and photographing the raid.

The dramatic events marked the authorities’ sharpest use of the new security law, and highlighted the growing threat to pro-democracy activists and journalists in Hong Kong, where press freedom is supposed to enjoy constitutional protection.

In a statement, the Hong Kong Police Force said it had arrested seven men between the ages of 39 and 72 on suspicion of breaching the security law, without naming the suspects. Police said the operation was continuing.

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The arrests come after the U.S. Treasury Department last week imposed sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other officials, including Beijing’s envoy in the city, the police commissioner and his predecessor, for eviscerating political freedoms in Hong Kong. The city’s government called the sanctions “shameless and despicable” and said it would support Chinese countermeasures.

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“I have expected this day would come, but I did not expect it to come at this moment, after the U.S. sanctions,” said a journalist at Apple Daily, speaking on the condition of anonymity over fears for their safety. “These arrests are about revenge. They are targeting us, a media outlet which is the most outspoken against the Hong Kong government and Beijing.”

A senior journalist at Apple Daily, also requesting anonymity to protect their safety, added that Lai’s arrest was “just the first step.”

“Shutting down Apple Daily and threatening other media organizations is the goal — so that no one dares to speak the truth at the end. It is not excessive to say this is the end of Hong Kong press freedom,” the person said.

National security agents detain media mogul Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong on Monday.
National security agents detain media mogul Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong on Monday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Apple Daily is among Hong Kong’s most-read media outlets, and Next Digital employs thousands of staff. Several Next Digital executives were among those arrested Monday, a person familiar with the situation said.

Beijing has branded Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement a Western plot to undermine the ruling Chinese Communist Party, rather than a genuine call by Hong Kong people for greater freedoms and the preservation of the territory’s promised autonomy in the face of Beijing’s encroachment.

The new security law imposes maximum sentences of life in prison for offenses such as subverting state power, advocating for Hong Kong independence, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces. It grants authorities wide-ranging powers to search premises and electronic devices and seize servers, including from media organizations.

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Hong Kong’s media industry had been bracing for the impact since the law took effect July 1. The city has long been a regional base for the Asian operations of outlets including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Last month, the New York Times said it would move some operations to Seoul, citing uncertainty and fears over the new law. Media organizations recently have faced delays in renewing visas for Hong Kong-based journalists, with little clarity from the government.

An officer at Hong Kong’s immigration department, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, said a new national security unit had been established in the department to review visa applications that officials considered contentious.

Though the security law is not supposed to apply retroactively, it has been designed to stifle dissent and target Beijing’s opponents. Lai is part of what Chinese state media dubs a “Gang of Four” comprising supporters of democracy in the Chinese territory. He has been arrested previously, most recently in February on charges of illegal assembly and intimidation amid a broader sweep against pro-democracy campaigners.

The self-made millionaire is particularly grating to Beijing because of his long-standing relationships on Capitol Hill. Lai traveled to Washington last year to meet with Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Chinese state media has called Lai a traitor and accused him of bankrolling pro-democracy causes. Lai, who is from mainland China, became politically active after Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on protesters at Tiananmen Square.

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This is the second time authorities have used the security law to directly target activists and arrest them from their homes. Last month, police arrested four people between the ages of 16 and 21 under the law for their alleged role in a student group that advocates for Hong Kong independence. The law was also used against demonstrators at a street protest on July 1.

During a Facebook live chat four days ago, Lai was asked about Chinese state media reports that arrest warrants had been issued for activists outside Hong Kong, and whether he believed such threats were legitimate.

“I think this is only the beginning,” Lai replied. “I think they will continue to censor people they consider detrimental to the CCP’s international standing.”

Beijing has long used family members to apply pressure to political dissidents and activists. In an interview marking 25th anniversary of Apple Daily, Lai said his activism is his responsibility alone, and that he did not want his family to be involved.

During the Facebook live chat, he was defiant but more circumspect when it came to his family.

“No, I cannot leave Hong Kong,” he said. “My family may leave Hong Kong if worst comes worst. I would not leave Hong Kong.”

Tiffany Liang and Timothy McLaughlin contributed to this report.