Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai has been arrested for allegedly breaching the city’s new national security law in the most high-profile detention since the legislation was imposed by Beijing in June.
The move is likely to add to growing tensions between China and the US, which last week sanctioned Hong Kong and Chinese officials responsible for the growing crackdown on the territory’s pro-democracy movement.
Apart from Mr Lai, six others including two of his sons and other executives of Next Digital, Mr Lai’s media group, were also detained by the police on Monday morning, according to Mark Simon, a close aide to the entrepreneur.
Mr Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper released photos and live video showing scores of officers filing into Next Digital’s high-rise offices and beginning their searches.
The police said they had arrested seven men on suspicion of committing crimes including colluding with foreign countries or forces to endanger national security. They did not release the names of the arrested individuals.
The Hong Kong government has cracked down on local activists after the national security law came into force, through arrests or by barring pro-democracy candidates from running in local elections.
The US and aligned countries have condemned the Hong Kong and Chinese governments over the law. US President Donald Trump last week sanctioned 11 officials, including Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. He had previously withdrawn the city’s special trading status, which exempted the territory from sanctions applied to mainland China.
Foreign ministers of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network, which comprises the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, on Monday issued a joint letter sharply criticising Hong Kong officials for postponing legislative elections and disqualifying pro-democracy candidates.
Ms Lam delayed the poll scheduled for September 6, citing the coronavirus pandemic. But critics alleged the decision was more closely driven by politics than the health crisis.
“Beijing promised autonomy and freedoms under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle to the Hong Kong people in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN-registered treaty, and must honour its commitments,” said the letter.
Mr Lai, 72, founded Next Digital, the Hong Kong-listed publisher of newspaper Apple Daily and Next Magazine, which are among the most popular publications in the city. He found early success with the fashion chain Giordano but says he was inspired to move into publishing by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
China has previously accused Mr Lai of endangering national security after he met US vice-president Mike Pence last year and secretary of state Mike Pompeo in July 2019. Beijing has accused him of being one of the masterminds behind Hong Kong’s anti-government protests.
Mr Lai was arrested on suspicion of “collaborating with foreign forces”, according to Mr Simon. The crime carries a sentence of up to life imprisonment. Mr Lai was already facing other criminal charges related to illegal assembly and intimidating a reporter. He has pleaded not guilty to intimidating a reporter and is expected to plead not guilty to illegal assembly.
The decision by the Five Eyes to issue a joint condemnation of Beijing and Hong Kong authorities highlights an increasing willingness to extend the group’s activities beyond intelligence sharing as tensions rise.
“China’s intensifying pressure on Hong Kong, alongside its assertive policies in other areas, has driven the Five Eyes governments closer together. What was an intelligence alliance is starting to look more like a united front to call out and push back against Beijing’s transgressions,” said Ben Bland, analyst at Lowy Institute.
Shares in Next Digital plunged in morning trading only to swing to gains of as much as 344 per cent in afternoon trading in Hong Kong as online pro-democracy forums called on investors to buy the stock.
Stanley Wong, a former columnist for Apple Daily, said he had bought 1.2m shares in the company as a “show of support” for the company. Mr Wong sold his shares as other investors piled in and said he would use the HK$75,000 ($9,700) profit to fund a scholarship at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.