Hong police have arrested one of the territory’s leading pro-democracy figures in a crackdown on prominent activists associated with a protest last year.
Jimmy Lai, who founded Apple Daily in 1995, was arrested for illegal assembly relating to the protest on August 31. Two veteran pro-democracy politicians were also arrested.
Apple Daily is the most outspoken pro-democracy newspaper in the city and is often critical of the city’s leadership and China’s Communist party, alongside a heavy dose of tabloid gossip.
Chinese state media last year said Mr Lai, who moved to the semi-autonomous territory from China as a child, and three other political figures were the masterminds behind the city’s protests. All four have denied the claim.
Demonstrators insist that the protests are the product of a mass leaderless movement organised on anonymous social media groups.
“Utterly outrageous. Utterly heartbreaking,” Benedict Rogers, founder of Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based human rights organisation, said on Twitter of the arrests.
“But also utterly futile, for these truly great people and others will never be defeated in the quest for freedom, human dignity, human rights, autonomy and the rule of law in Hong Kong.”
Dixon Ming Sing, a political science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and technology, said the timing of the arrests was significant as they came as the city wrestled with the coronavirus and the financial shocks from the outbreak.
He said it was not only a punishment for the individuals, but a warning shot for pro-democracy voices in the city. “In the eyes of Beijing, Apple Daily has been the top anti-Beijing media, so [Mr Lai] has to be punished.”
In the past two months, Beijing has replaced two of the top officials governing Hong Kong affairs and installed party hardliners.
A regular at pro-democracy protests, Mr Lai has been labelled a traitor by Beijing. He sparked an angry response from China in July after he met Mike Pence, US vice-president, and secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Washington. Mr Lai’s home was firebombed in September during a series of attacks against pro-democracy activists.
State media described Mr Lai as a member of a “Gang of Four” alongside Anson Chan, a former chief secretary for administration; Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic party; and Albert Ho, former leader of the Democratic party, by Chinese state media last summer. The name references four Communist party members who rose to prominence during the Cultural Revolution and were later charged with treason.
The two politicians, Yeung Sum, the former chairman of the Democratic party and Lee Cheuk-yan, general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, were also arrested on suspicion of illegal assembly during the same protest.
There have been no mass protests since the outbreak of the coronavirus in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. But smaller targeted demonstrations have been directed against the government’s refusal to completely close the border with China, where the virus began.