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Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai arrested, newsroom searched

The move comes days after the U.S. announced sanctions and shows China's determination to enforce the new law despite pressure.

Hong Kong police arrested media tycoon Jimmy Lai and raided the publisher's headquarters Monday in the highest-profile use yet of a new national security law Beijing imposed on the city in June.

"Jimmy Lai is being arrested for collusion with foreign powers at this time," Mark Simon, an executive of Lai's media group and his aide, wrote on Twitter.

The 71-year-old owns popular tabloid Apple Daily and is an outspoken pro-democracy figure in Hong Kong who regularly criticizes China's authoritarian rule and Hong Kong's government. 

Masked and wearing a blue shirt and a light gray blazer, Lai was led out of his mansion in Kowloon by police officers also wearing surgical masks and was taken away. He was later brought to the headquarters of his media company Next Digital, where a police raid was ongoing according to a livestreamed video by staff. Lai remained in the offices for two and a half hours before police took him away in a car.

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Hong Kong police said seven people between 39 and 72 years old had been arrested on suspicion of violating the new security law, with offences including collusion with a foreign country, but the statement did not reveal the names of those arrested. The police did not rule out further arrests being made.

The move, coming days after the U.S. government announced sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials, shows China's determination to move forward with enforcement of the new law despite outside pressure.

The officials shrugged off the sanctions, which may have limited practical effect, with one saying that being named by the U.S. showed that he was doing the right thing for Hong Kong and China. They have rejected any criticism of Hong Kong policy as foreign interference in China's domestic affairs.

Credit: AP
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, center, who founded local newspaper Apple Daily, is arrested by police officers at his home in Hong Kong, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. Lai was arrested Monday on suspicion of collusion with foreign powers, his aide said, in the highest-profile use yet of the new national security law Beijing imposed on the city after protests last year. (AP Photo)

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Simon said police searched both Lai's and his son's home, and detained several other members of Next Digital, which Lai founded.

In May, shortly after Beijing announced its intention to pass the national security law in Hong Kong, Lai penned an op-ed in the New York Times stating that China was repressing Hong Kong with the legislation. 

"I have always thought I might one day be sent to jail for my publications or for my calls for democracy in Hong Kong," Lai wrote. 

"But for a few tweets, and because they are said to threaten the national security of mighty China? That's a new one, even for me," he said.

Lai had previously been arrested in February and April, for allegedly participating in an unauthorized protests last year. He also faces charges for joining an unauthorized vigil on June 4 aimed at marking the anniversary of Beijing's crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The details behind the accusation that Lai or others at the newspaper may have colluded with foreign forces were not clear.

Last year, Lai met Vice President of the United States Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the White House to discuss Hong Kong's controversial legislation — since withdrawn — that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China to stand trial. 

But Hong Kong officials have said the national security law, which took effect June 30, would not be applied retroactively. The law is widely seen as a means to curb dissent after anti-government protests rocked the semi-autonomous city for months last year.

The legislation outlaws secessionist, subversive and terrorist acts, as well as collusion with foreign forces in the city's internal affairs. The maximum punishment for serious offenders is life imprisonment.

Over a hundred police raided Next Digital's headquarters, cordoning off the area, searching desks in the newsroom and at times getting into heated exchanges with Next Digital staff. What police were looking for in the building wasn't clear. Simon said in a tweet that the police were executing a search warrant. 

Next Digital operates the Apple Daily tabloid, which Lai founded in 1995, ahead of Britain's handover of Hong Kong to China. Like Lai, Apple Daily has a strong pro-democracy stance and often urged its readers to take part in pro-democracy protests.

The share price of Next Digital soared over 200% on Monday afternoon, following posts on popular forum LIHKG encouraging investors to support the company by buying its stock.

"We are completely shocked by what's happening now, with the arrest and followed by the ongoing raid inside the headquarters of Next Digital," said Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

"With the passage of the national security law and the really tough powers given to the police in their operations, we have seen now, what we call 'white terror' become a reality, which will affect media organizations and journalists' reporting."

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council condemned the arrests in a statement, saying that such arrests were a tool for the Chinese Communist Party's "political cleansing and hegemonic expansion." It said the law was abused to suppress the freedom of speech, press freedom and the civil rights of Hong Kong people.

Last month, Chinese broadcaster CCTV said pro-democracy activist Nathan Law and five others were wanted under the law, although all six had fled overseas. Law had relocated to Britain in July to continue international advocacy work for Hong Kong.