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Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon arrested

In a blow to the city’s press freedom, police arrest Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai and raid his newspaper office

Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon arrested

Police lead Jimmy Lai away from his home after he was arrested on August 10, 2020. (VERNON YUEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Two hundred police officers in face masks barged into Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newsroom Monday, hours after police arrested the pro-democracy newspaper’s publisher, Jimmy Lai, on charges of “colluding with foreign forces” under the new national security law. The arrest and raid make up the highest-profile attack on the free press in Hong Kong since the law went into effect on June 30. 

Apple Daily reporters pulled out their video equipment and live-streamed the raid as police rifled through reporters’ desks and hauled out blue bins full of “evidence.” At one point they led 72-year-old Lai through the building in handcuffs. Police stopped several other media outlets from covering the raid, preventing them from attending a police briefing at the building.

By the end of the night, police had arrested nine other people under the law: Lai’s two sons (who do not work in his media empire); four executives from his company, Next Digital; freelance journalist Wilson Li, who works for the UK’s ITV news; activist Andy Li; and prominent activist and politician Agnes Chow. By early Wednesday, authorities released all of them on bail.

“The arrests, and the raid on the newsroom, are a direct assault on Hong Kong’s press freedom and signal a dark new phase in the erosion of the city’s global reputation,” Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club said in a statement. “Today’s events raise worries that such actions are being used to erase basic freedoms in Hong Kong.”

In a sign of solidarity with Lai, pro-democracy supporters bought up shares of Next Digital, causing the company’s stock to surge more than 1,000 percent by Tuesday. Some stood in line outside newsstands in the wee hours of the morning to buy copies of the newspaper: Despite the raid and disruption to their workday, Apple Daily reporters still churned out a new issue of the paper and printed 550,000 copies rather than the usual 70,000. The front page of the tabloid showed police arresting Lai with the headline “Apple Daily must maintain its operations.”

Lai was born in Guangzhou, China, and escaped to Hong Kong on a fishing boat at age 12. He worked odd jobs in the textile industry and learned English, eventually founding Giordano, a multimillion-dollar clothing empire. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, Lai became one of the few tycoons to vocally criticize Beijing and call for democracy. Chinese authorities threatened to ban his shops in mainland China so he sold Giordano and created Next Digital with its pro-democracy publications including Apple Daily, the second most-read newspaper in Hong Kong.

A Catholic, Lai has donated millions to different causes, including supporting underground Catholic churches in China that remain faithful to Rome and refuse to join the state-run churches. 

Lai joined in the recent Hong Kong protests. As a result, police arrested him twice this year on illegal assembly charges for his involvement. When Beijing announced in late May it would impose a national security law in Hong Kong, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times predicting he would be arrested under the law, which criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. At the time Lai had just opened a Twitter account, and the state-owned Global Times quickly called his tweets “evidence of subversion.”

Three months later police showed up at his mansion and led him away in handcuffs. Suspects charged under the national security law could face up to life imprisonment. Lai’s sons are also being investigated for unspecified violations of corporate law, according to Mark Simon, a senior executive with Next Digital. 

Police arrested Wilson Li, the freelance journalist, and activist Andy Li because of their ties to the UK-based NGO Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong, which helped with the newly published UK All-Party Parliamentary Group report on Hong Kong police brutality. 

In the evening, police arrested 23-year-old Agnes Chow for “inciting secession,” according to her lawyer. Chow, who credits her Catholic religion as the catalyst behind her activism, was one of the founding members of the political group Demosistō along with Joshua Wong and Nathan Law. In 2018 she ran for legislative council, however election officers disqualified her candidacy because Demosistō advocated self-determination (allowing for Hong Kongers to decide themselves whether or not to return to China after 2049), which the officials claimed was against Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. In June, Chow pleaded guilty to two charges connected to her participation in protests last year.

In a Facebook post on Monday she noted suspicious-look men were standing outside her apartment. “I’m a bit scared,” Chow wrote. “But I believe in what I’m doing.”

The quashing of press freedom extends to foreign media as well. Journalists from U.S. media companies such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal noted monthslong delays in visa processing. The Times decided to move its Hong Kong-based operations to South Korea after the enactment of the national security law and the city denied longtime China reporter Chris Buckley a work permit. 

In Tuesday’s edition of Apply Daily, Next Digital released a statement condemning the raid and arrests. “Beijing’s national security law for Hong Kong claims to guarantee residents’ freedom of speech, of the press and of publication, but the authorities’ actions have proved otherwise,” it read. “Hong Kong’s press freedom is now hanging by a thread, but our staff will remain fully committed to our duty to defend the freedom of the press.”