By Shibani Mahtani,
Kin Cheung AP
HONG KONG — Media tycoon and activist Jimmy Lai, his sons and several others were arrested early Monday for allegedly colluding with foreign forces, a crime under Hong Kong’s new national security law, according to the newspaper he founded and a close associate.
Police arrived at the home of Lai and his sons, Mark Simon, senior executive at Lai’s media group and a close aide, said in a tweet. Police were “executing search warrants,” Simon added. He said the alleged crime was colluding with foreign powers.
In a statement, the Hong Kong Police Force said it had arrested seven men between the ages of 39 and 72 on suspicion of breaching the security law, without naming the suspects. Police said the operation was continuing.
The arrests come after the U.S. Treasury Department last week imposed sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other officials, including Beijing’s envoy in the city, the police commissioner and his predecessor, for eviscerating political freedoms in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s government said it would support Chinese countermeasures against the United States, and called the sanctions “shameless and despicable.”
Several executives at Lai’s media group, Next Digital Ltd., were among those arrested Monday, a person familiar with the situation said. Next Digital is the parent company of Apple Daily, the newspaper Lai founded in 1995 and one of the most-read media outlets in Hong Kong. The group has thousands of staff in the city.
Police entered offices of Next Digital a short time later.
Under the new security law imposed by Beijing, colluding with foreign powers carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Beijing has branded Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement a plot by Western powers to undermine the ruling Chinese Communist Party, rather than a genuine call by Hong Kong people for greater freedoms and the preservation of the territory’s promised autonomy.
National security agents detain media mogul Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong on Monday.
The new law gives authorities wide-ranging powers to search premises, electronic devices and seize servers, including from media organizations.
Though the law is not supposed to apply retroactively, it has been designed to stifle dissent and target enemies of Beijing. Lai is part of what Chinese state media dubs a “Gang of Four” comprising supporters of greater freedoms and democracy in the Chinese territory. He has been arrested previously, most recently in February on charges of illegal assembly and intimidation amid a broader sweep against pro-democracy campaigners.
The self-made millionaire is particularly grating to Beijing because of his long-standing relationships on Capitol Hill. Lai traveled to Washington last year to meet with Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Chinese state media has called Lai a traitor and accused him of bankrolling pro-democracy causes. Lai, who is from mainland China, became politically active after Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on protesters at Tiananmen Square.
This is the second time authorities have used the national security law to directly target activists and arrest them from their homes. Last month, police arrested four people between the ages of 16 and 21 under the law for their alleged role in a student activist group that advocates for Hong Kong independence. The law was also used against demonstrators at a street protest on July 1.
During a Facebook live chat four days ago, Lai was asked about reports on Chinese state media that arrest warrants had been issued for activists outside of Hong Kong, and whether he believed such threats were legitimate.
“I think this is only the beginning,” Lai replied. “I think they will continue to censor people they consider detrimental to the CCP’s international standing.”
Lai, asked if he would remain in the city, was defiant. “No, I cannot leave Hong Kong,” he said. “My family may leave Hong Kong if worst comes worst. I would not leave Hong Kong.”