One of the most prominent democracy activists in Hong Kong, media tycoon Jimmy Lai, also an ardent critic of Beijing has been arrested amid Beijing’s crackdown against pro-democracy opposition in the city.
China imposed a sweeping new security law on Hong Kong on June 30, drawing condemnation from Western countries. The arrest further stokes concerns about media and other promised freedoms when it returned to China in 1997.
Mainland-born Lai, who was smuggled into the British colony of Hong Kong on a fishing boat when he was a penniless 12-year-old. Lai became the highest-profile person arrested under a new national security law on Monday, detained over suspected collusion with foreign forces as around 200 police searched the offices of his Apple Daily newspaper.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was “deeply troubled” by reports of the arrest, calling it further proof that the Chinese Communist Party had “eviscerated” Hong Kong’s freedoms and eroded the rights of its people.
The arrest “bears out the worst fears that Hong Kong’s national security law would be used to suppress critical pro-democracy opinion and restrict press freedom”, said Steven Butler, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia programme coordinator.
Ryan Law, chief editor of Apple Daily, a staunch anti-government tabloid that also does investigative work, told Reuters the paper would not be intimidated.
“Business as usual,” he said.
The security law punishes anything China considers subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison. Critics say it crushes freedoms, while supporters say it will bring stability after prolonged anti-China, pro-democracy protests last year.
Beijing said it supported Lai’s arrest.
A spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office told the official Xinhua news agency Lai was a representative of people who were “anti-China, anti-Hong Kong” and that he planned and instigated “illegal” protests, funded pro-independence forces and used his media group to spread rumors.
Lai, 71, had been a frequent visitor to Washington, where he has met officials, including Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor”.
Hong Kong police said they had arrested nine men and one woman, aged between 23 and 72, without naming them, adding that further arrests were possible.
Suspected offences included “collusion with a foreign country/external elements to endanger national security, conspiracy to defraud” and others, the police said.