Prominent Hong Kong Publisher Arrested Under New National Security Law

Aug 10, 2020
Originally published on August 11, 2020 10:00 am

Updated at 9:12 p.m. ET

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai and several executives at the media company he founded have been arrested. They're accused of colluding with foreign forces, the highest profile arrests thus far under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing just over a month ago.

Lai, 71, is the chairman and majority owner of the staunchly pro-democratic newspaper Apple Daily and its publishing company, Next Digital. Share prices for Next Media surged 300% within hours of his arrest as pro-democracy supporters urged each other online to support the company.

Lai's two sons Timothy Lai and Ian Lai were also arrested Monday morning after being accused, respectively, of conspiracy to defraud and collusion with foreign forces. Hong Kong police said a total of seven individuals — among them Next Media executives — had been arrested on Monday under the national security law for colluding with foreign forces.

President Trump's national security adviser Robert O'Brien said the arrests were deeply troubling. He said Lai had defended liberty and the arrests were "a clear effort to intimidate pro-democracy and political opposition figures and suppress Hong Kong's free and independent media, which have played key roles in the city's character and success."

"It's a combination of charges. Most are being arrested on some type of conspiracy to commit fraud charges ... but really it's just an effort to decapitate the management as they took out the top senior management with those charges," Mark Simon, a senior executive at Next Digital, told NPR.

Livestreams of the ensuing police raid on Apple Daily's newsroom showed about 200 police entering the Next Digital building Monday morning. The police sealed off the newsroom and searched through documents on reporters' desks while Lai, handcuffed, was led through the building. Police also raided a restaurant owned by Ian Lai.

The senior Lai first made his fortune in clothing and retail and soon parlayed his wealth into a media business, which he resolved would help uphold Hong Kong's then-nascent but robust civil liberties. Hailing from an older generation of activists, Lai is both a political firebrand and unique figure who commands respect across the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong.

That generation includes fellow pro-democracy advocates and veteran politicians Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, who were among 15 individuals, including Lai, arrested in April for "organizing and participating in unauthorized assemblies."

Lai's prominence in Hong Kong's business community and his political activism made him an obvious target in Beijing's ongoing efforts to tighten its control over the region. In May, Lai was singled out by the nationalistic Chinese state tabloid Global Times as potentially subject to criminal prosecution for subversion because of his Twitter account, which he largely devotes to upholding Hong Kong's civil liberties.

"I have always thought I might one day be sent to jail for my publications or for my calls for democracy in Hong Kong," Lai wrote soon afterward in an op-ed published in The New York Times. "But for a few tweets, and because they are said to threaten the national security of mighty China? That's a new one, even for me."

Lai was also arrested in February for participating in an illegal assembly and faces additional charges of incitement for joining in this year's annual June 4 vigil commemorating the victims of China's Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.

But Lai faces much more serious penalties under the national security law, which Beijing implemented June 30. The law criminalizes what it calls collusion with foreign forces, subversion, secession and terrorism, with penalties of up to life in prison and potential extradition to mainland China in particularly "complex" cases.

In June, Hong Kong's chief executive and a number of Beijing-backed officials defended the law, saying it would be applied to a very narrow group of individuals.

But Beijing's national security law has had an enormous chilling effect on Hong Kong civil society, particularly in schools and universities as people self-censor out of fear of prosecution.

Police made their first wave of arrests under the law the day after its implementation, seizing protesters who attended a demonstration despite a police ban on doing so. In July, four people ages 16 to 21 were arrested in a second wave after being accused of separatism for alleged links to a new pro-independence political party and statements posted on their social media pages.

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The scene in Hong Kong today would be hard to reconcile with its very recent past. The Chinese possession has had freedom of the press since British colonial times. But today police flooded the newsroom of a prominent paper and arrested the publisher.

Jimmy Lai is one of the few Hong Kong corporate leaders to support a pro-democracy movement. He's a past guest on this program who told us he was hoping for a miracle in the confrontation with Beijing. NPR's Emily Feng has been reporting on the new national security law used to arrest him.

Hi there, Emily.


INSKEEP: What is Jimmy Lai's place in Hong Kong?

FENG: He is one of the most visible critics of Beijing and of a national security law that was just passed in Hong Kong. He's this entrepreneur and political firebrand who commands respect across generations in Hong Kong because he's part of this older generation that helped build Hong Kong into a global economic hub. But today, he, his two sons and four executives who work for him were arrested for collusion with foreign forces.

We don't know yet what exactly they did to be arrested, but his arrest is a stark warning to Hong Kong's press corps. Hong Kong's press corps, though, is not the only political target these days in Hong Kong. Let's listen to some other sectors of civil society that have come under pressure from this national security law.

As of last month, Hong Kong activist Samuel Chu is a wanted fugitive by the Hong Kong government. I called him earlier this week.

SAMUEL CHU: I'm just having a regular Sunday (laughter) on my couch doing interviews on why I'm, all of a sudden, on a list.

FENG: Chu is a Hong Kong-born American citizen and is based in Washington, where he lobbies American politicians to make it easier for Hong Kongers to move to the U.S. and costlier for China to limit Hong Kong's promised autonomy. But under a new national security law Beijing imposed just over a month ago in Hong Kong, Chu and five others who live abroad are wanted for secession and colluding with foreign powers because the law applies to anyone who commits offenses anywhere against Hong Kong. Chu is undeterred.

CHU: We are advocating and working with influencing our own government's policy towards Hong Kong and China, and so we have nothing to be afraid of. In fact, this is sort of the most basic constitutional rights I have as an American.

FENG: But that's not what Beijing thinks. Beijing has long accused forces from the U.S. and other Western powers of meddling in Hong Kong, and now it has a national security law to potentially prosecute such cases - other targets under the law - four people, including a high school student, arrested last month for secession and 12 opposition candidates the government banned from running in legislative elections Hong Kong has now delayed by up to a year.

Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist and now pro-democracy activist, was one of the candidates banned. The reason - obstructing government proceedings and thus opposing the new law...

GWYNETH HO: All the normal democratic proceedings that - in the chamber, such as vetoing whatever laws or trying to voice dissent. We are now afraid that it may be considered as violating the national security law.

FENG: Education, that all-important tool for shaping young minds, is also under pressure. Textbooks must now be reviewed by the Education Bureau for content in violation of national security. An activist and tenured professor was fired last month from his university. The Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union says in the last year, nearly 200 teachers have had cases opened up against them. That's after anonymous individuals reported comments in favor of anti-government protests the teachers made on their private social media accounts.

Ip Kin-yuen is a pro-democracy lawmaker helping these teachers with legal assistance. He says Hong Kong's Beijing-backed authorities want to neutralize Hong Kong's freethinking schools.

IP KIN-YUEN: They want to have more control of the people's idea about the world, how they see the world and especially the younger generation.

FENG: The city's formidably freewheeling press corps has also come under more constraints because Hong Kong police can now conduct search and seizures without a warrant in the name of national security. Sharron Fast, a media law professor at the University of Hong Kong, explains.

SHARRON FAST: Under, quote-unquote, "exceptional circumstances," no judicial scrutiny will be applied. The police may simply seize and examine and inspect all of the information on your mobile phone or any electronic device.

FENG: The police's new national security powers also allow them to request Internet service providers to censor content from the Internet. Some technology companies have already decided to leave Hong Kong altogether.

Justin Watts is engineering head at TunnelBear, which provides VPN services that shield a user's Internet traffic from prying eyes, in part by funneling that traffic through servers across the world. He decided to remove those VPN servers from Hong Kong after the national security law.

JUSTIN WATTS: And if we look historically at encryption mechanisms that remain secure today - may not be so tomorrow.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Emily Feng. And that reference to VPN, Emily, makes me think about the way that people have to live in authoritarian societies. If they want to be somewhat free, they have to go underground on the Internet in that way. Hong Kong didn't have to be that way. What are the implications of this arrest?

FENG: It shows just how fragile freedom of the press and freedom of expression are, how quickly they can be dismantled because right now, Hong Kongers now face the same difficult decisions that their compatriots in mainland China face, which is when you can self-censor, when you can speak out now that the political costs are so high in doing so.

The way that the national security law is being applied also means that Hong Kong will continue to be a political flashpoint between the U.S. and China. So the U.S. has sanctioned Chinese officials over Hong Kong. Today China sanctioned 11 Americans over the sanctions in Hong Kong. So we will continue to see Hong Kong in the news and, unfortunately, more instances of the law being applied to arrest people in Hong Kong.

INSKEEP: And again, the latest news here - Jimmy Lai, prominent publisher, pro-democracy publisher in Hong Kong has been arrested today, and the newspaper that he ran was raided.

NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.