IT WAS, at least, live-streamed on Facebook. But those hunting for signs that freedom of expression has not been completely cowed in Hong Kong will have found little else to give them hope when, earlier today, they watched police rifle through the offices of Apple Daily, a local tabloid, bind the wrists of Jimmy Lai, its proprietor, and lead him away.
When Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, unveiled a suffocating national-security law on July 1st, she promised that Hong Kongers would “continue to enjoy the freedom of speech, freedom of press, of publication, protest, assembly and so on”. But it has not taken long for the law, which was imposed by the Chinese Communist Party without the approval of Hong Kong’s legislature, to send a chill through a once-feisty city.
Mr Lai is the most high-profile of the handful of arrests (mostly of student activists and protesters) so far made under the legislation. The details of his alleged crimes have not been released, save that he “colluded with a foreign country”, a crime that carries a potential life sentence. With his campaigning for democracy in Hong Kong, he had long been a thorn in China’s side. But it might be that a letter that Mr Lai ran on the front page of his newspaper in May riled them even more. And although offences committed before the law was gazetted are in theory exempt from prosecution, it ensured he became the authorities’ ripest target.
In it, he called on Donald Trump to help “save Hong Kong”. The American president did not need Mr Lai’s invitation to try. On July 14th Mr Trump revoked the territory’s special trading status with America, on the grounds that it no longer enjoyed sufficient autonomy from China. Then, on August 7th, his administration imposed sanctions on 11 Hong Kong and Chinese officials, including Mrs Lam, whom he accused of “implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom”.
The “so-called sanctions”, as the government has taken to describing them, hit a nerve. They put Mrs Lam into a small band of leaders that America thinks awful enough for punishment, including Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. The Hong Kong government calls the action “shameless and despicable”, and a “barbaric interference in the internal affairs of the People’s Republic of China”. Mrs Lam says she will give up her American visa. She will probably become the first chief executive of post-colonial Hong Kong never to be invited to the United States, a country that until recently was considered an ally.
One immediate question is where the tycoon will be tried. Under the terms of the law, trials for serious offences can be switched to the mainland, and held under Chinese jurisdiction. This was one reason why several countries, including Australia, Britain and Canada, recently tore up their extradition treaties with Hong Kong. China’s leaders say that such extraditions will be rare, saved only for “complicated” cases. But they may view Mr Lai as too important a scalp to risk sending to trial in a supposedly independent Hong Kong court.
A conviction might be useful beyond getting revenge on a nagging critic. The repression of anti-government figures under the new law has been swift and hard. Last month 12 pro-democracy candidates, some of them moderates, were barred from standing in Hong Kong’s legislative elections, which were scheduled for September, but have now been postponed for a year. (There was “no question” of political censorship in their disqualification, claimed the government unconvincingly.) The idea of quickly wielding the legislation against high-profile figures may be pour encourager les autres. If so, it has been a success. Hong Kongers have already, to a remarkable extent, gone into self-censorship mode. Rare is the figure who will now go on the record to criticise China, or even the national-security law. Street protests have all but ceased.
Were Mr Lai to be sent to the mainland, it would represent an unhappy homecoming. A poor boy from Guangdong province, he arrived in Hong Kong in 1960 aged 12 as a stowaway, and worked himself up from factory hand to manager to entrepreneur to tycoon, through his clothing chain, Giordano.
The bloody end in 1989 to pro-democracy protests in Beijing turned him into a prominent critic of the Chinese Communist Party. A true rarity in Hong Kong even in the 1990s, a “pro-democracy business tycoon”, Mr Lai became a staple of the foreign media, grateful for his penchant for a colourful quote, and his tendency to weep when talking about the crushing of the Tiananmen unrest. All this was galling enough to China’s rulers. But in 1994 he went further, insulting Li Peng, then China’s prime minister, personally as a “turtle’s egg [bastard] with zero IQ” and “the shame of the Chinese nation”. Then as now, the party had economic levers to pull in reprisal. It began to close Giordano shops in China, forcing him to sell out.
He turned to businesses that would be viable outside China. From the point of view of his relations with Beijing, he could not have plumped for a worse industry to manage this transition: the media. First with Next, a glossy, scandal-mongering, weekly magazine in Hong Kong, and then with Apple Daily, which successfully transposed the formula to the newspaper market, his products were both wildly popular and deeply suspicious of the Communist Party. Worse, from China’s perspective, he pulled off the same trick in Taiwan, after weathering resistance from local competitors and an advertising boycott.
When pro-democracy “Umbrella” protesters blockaded much of the centre of the city in 2014 to press their demand for China to allow them an electoral system that might offer voters a real choice, Mr Lai camped out with them. His tent was a hospitable port of call for journalists covering the ultimately failed movement. Mr Lai, as he has often acknowledged, had it coming.