Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai was arrested under a new national security law on Monday and police raided his newspaper offices in a deepening crackdown on dissent in the restless Chinese city.
Lai was among seven arrested in an operation focused on his Next Media publishing group, the latest to target dissidents since Beijing imposed the sweeping law on Hong Kong at the end of June, sending a political chill through the semi-autonomous city.
“They arrested him at his house at about 7am,” said Mark Simon, a close aide of Lai’s, adding that the six other colleagues had also been arrested.
In a statement, police said seven people were detained on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces – one of the new national security offences – and fraud.
Journalists working at Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper took to Facebook to broadcast dramatic images of police officers conducting the raid.
In the footage the newspaper’s chief editor Law Wai-kwong can be seen demanding a warrant from officers.
“Tell your colleagues to keep their hands off until our lawyers check the warrant,” Law was filmed saying.
Apple’s staff were ordered to leave their seats and line up so police could check their identities as officers conducted searches across the newsroom.
At one point 72-year-old Lai was present, in handcuffs and surrounded by officers.
In a statement police said the search was conducted with a court warrant which they said was shown to staff.
The security law was introduced in a bid to quell last year’s huge and often violent pro-democracy protests, and authorities have since wielded their new powers to pursue the city’s democracy camp, sparking criticism from western nations and sanctions from the US.
Lai’s Apple Daily and Next Magazine are unapologetically pro-democracy and critical of Beijing.
Few Hong Kongers generate the level of personal vitriol from Beijing that Lai does.
For many residents of the city he is an unlikely hero – a pugnacious, self-made tabloid owner and the only tycoon willing to criticise Beijing.
But in China’s state media he is a “traitor”, the biggest “black hand” behind last year’s protests and the head of a new “Gang of Four” conspiring with foreign nations to undermine the motherland.
Allegations of Lai colluding with foreigners went into overdrive in state media last year when he met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence.
‘Prepared for prison’
Lai spoke to AFP in mid-June, two weeks before the new security law was imposed on Hong Kong.
“I’m prepared for prison,” he said. “If it comes, I will have the opportunity to read books I haven’t read. The only thing I can do is to be positive.”
He brushed off the collusion allegations, saying Hong Kongers had a right to meet with foreign politicians.
His life is a rags to riches story.
He arrived in Hong Kong aged 12 fleeing communist China. Lai toiled in sweatshops, taught himself English and eventually founded the hugely successful Giordano clothing empire.
Beijing’s deadly 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square turned him political and he became one of the few tycoons in Hong Kong willing to criticise China.
Authorities started shutting down his clothing empire on the mainland, so he sold it and turned to publishing raucous tabloids instead.
In the June interview with AFP, Lai described Beijing’s new security law as “a death knell for Hong Kong” and said he feared authorities would come after his journalists.
The law targets secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces.
Both China and Hong Kong have said it will not affect freedoms and only targets a minority.
But its broadly-worded provisions criminalise certain political speech overnight, such as advocating for sanctions, greater autonomy or independence for Hong Kong.
Critics, including many Western nations, believe the law has ended the key liberties and autonomy that Beijing promised Hong Kong could keep after its 1997 handover by Britain.
Its rollout has been combined with ramped up police action against democracy supporters.
About two dozen – including Lai – have been charged for defying a police ban to attend a Tiananmen remembrance vigil in early June. Lai and many others are also being prosecuted for taking part in last year’s protests.
Last month a dozen high-profile pro-democracy figures were disqualified from standing in local elections for holding unacceptable political views.
The banned opinions included being critical of the security law and campaigning to win a majority in the city’s partially-elected legislature in order to block government laws.