HONG KONG — Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon and longtime backer of Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, could face life in prison after he was charged Friday with "collusion with a foreign country" under Beijing's new national security law.
And earlier this year, Beijing effectively expelled American journalists from The Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal in retaliation for the Trump administration’s new restrictions on Chinese state media.
Lai, who was arrested by investigators in August, is the fourth and highest-profile person to be charged under the security law, which seeks to eradicate dissent in Hong Kong by curtailing constitutional rights, including free speech. He has been in detention for a week for allegedly flouting terms of his office lease, and turned 72 in jail on Tuesday.
The billionaire, who founded the Apple Daily newspaper in support of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, has become a prime target of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to silence its critics, some of whom fled abroad as its crackdown on Hong Kong intensified this year. Lai was previously arrested in February, then in April and again in August, the last occasion under the security law that took effect in late June.
The case against Lai heightened an environment of fear in the former British colony, whose increasingly tight control by China has become a point of contention in Beijing’s disputes with the West.
“As a well-known public figure in Hong Kong, Lai’s arrest sends a shock to many Hong Kongers,” said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Under present tensions between the U.S. and China, Lai’s arrest will also become an international case.”
In August, police officers from a newly established national security unit of the Hong Kong police swept across the city in an hours-long operation, arresting 10 people including Lai, his sons and executives at Next Digital, his media company. The arrests were accompanied by a raid on the newsroom of Apple Daily — which is published by Next Digital — where nearly 200 officers rifled through papers, shut journalists out of their workplace and carted off boxes of evidence.
Lai’s case will be heard in court on Saturday.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, told the U.N. Human Rights Council this year that the security law — which criminalizes vaguely worded offenses such as secession and foreign collusion — would not be retroactive.
Police said Friday that Lai has been charged with “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security” but did not provide details of his alleged crime.
Chinese state media has branded Lai, who became a leading critic of the Communist Party after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, a traitor and an enemy of the state.
The businessman, who has long-standing relationships on Capitol Hill, has lobbied Washington for support in preserving Hong Kong’s autonomy and relative freedoms compared with the Chinese mainland.
This week, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to President-elect Joe Biden, tweeted that he is “deeply concerned about the continuing arrests and imprisonment of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.” The State Department also imposed sanctions on 14 Chinese officials for Beijing’s “unrelenting assault” against Hong Kong’s democratic processes, adding to measures against other top officials, including Lam and the head of Beijing’s liaison office in the city.
Lai has been unable to travel since his passport was confiscated early this year, according to Mark Simon, his confidant and former business aide. But Lai has continued to give interviews in support of Western sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials.
Three others have been charged under the security law, including Tony Chung, a 19-year-old activist who founded a student group that called for Hong Kong’s independence. Chung was found guilty Friday on separate charges of desecrating China’s national flag and unlawful assembly. He has been in jail since October, after he was apprehended by several men while attempting to seek refuge at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong.
Tong Ying-kit, 24, was accused of riding his motorcycle into a group of police officers while carrying a flag with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times,” synonymous with the anti-government protests that erupted in June last year.
The Hong Kong government says that slogan is now illegal. Tong pleaded not guilty to charges of inciting secession, which also carry a potential life sentence. Adam Ma, also charged under the national security law, has been accused of chanting pro-independence slogans.
Lai’s associates say the charges against him are entirely political. Under the national security law, Hong Kong suspects can be taken for trial to mainland China, where the legal system is opaque and open to abuse.
“The charges against Jimmy are not about a misused lease, not even about the national security of China,” said Mark Simon, a close aide. “It is about one thing, a man who won’t bow to the Chinese Communist Party.”
Bloomberg News said Friday that its detained staff member, Haze Fan, was taken away by plainclothes security officers from her Beijing apartment about 11:30 a.m. Monday.
Details of the investigation were not immediately available. It comes after months of deteriorating conditions for Western media organizations in China, with a number of American and Australian journalists effectively expelled over the past year. Chinese nationals employed by Western media outlets have been warned by authorities in recent months to watch their step.
“We are very concerned for her, and have been actively speaking to Chinese authorities to better understand the situation. We are continuing to do everything we can to support her while we seek more information,” a Bloomberg News spokesperson was quoted as saying in one of the news agency’s articles.
Fan, a Chinese national, has worked for Bloomberg News in Beijing since 2017, with prior stints at CNBC, Al Jazeera, CBS News and Thomson Reuters, according to her LinkedIn profile.
For Bloomberg News, she worked on China business news topics, traditionally considered less risky for Chinese nationals than political news.
Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait speaks about the detention of Haze Fan, who works for the Bloomberg News bureau in Beijing, on suspicion of endangering national security https://t.co/8R7zPuuqQh pic.twitter.com/fYPJDbsp9F— Bloomberg Quicktake (@Quicktake) December 11, 2020
China does not allow its nationals to work as journalists for foreign media organizations in China, only as news assistants. Several Chinese news assistants for major Western media outlets saw their work credentials revoked by Beijing this year after they assisted with reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
Dou reported from Seoul.