Hong Kong Media Tycoon Was Arrested Under the National Security Law. What Could Happen to Him Next Is Unclear.

A Hong Kong-based rights lawyer told us that Jimmy Lai’s high-profile arrest is aimed at silencing the city's opposition voices.
August 11, 2020, 12:47pm
Jimmy Lai hong kong
Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai was arrested at his home on on August 10, 2020, under the city's new national security law. Photo credit: VERNON YUEN / AFP

Years of harassment failed to deter Jimmy Lai, a leading Hong Kong pro-democracy figure and founder of the popular local newspaper Apple Daily, from speaking out against Beijing.

In June, Lai told The Little Red Podcast that the controversial new national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing would damage press freedom in Hong Kong, making it even more difficult—and more dangerous—to voice political opposition.

“We have no choice but to fight on,” Lai said. “If we let fear frighten us, we won’t be able to do anything.”

His words appeared to foreshadow his fate—on Monday, August 10, Lai was arrested at his home for suspected collusion with foreign forces under the national security law. Scores of uniformed police officers also raided the offices of the Apple Daily newspaper, which he founded in 1995.

His arrest prompted a wave of support from Hong Kongers, who went out en masse to purchase the Tuesday morning edition of Apple Daily.

“Apple Daily must fight on,” the paper’s headline read, alongside a full-page photo of Lai being led through the Apple Daily office by police.

Enterprising, successful and rebellious, Lai has been touted as the “Rupert Murdoch of Asia”. The 71-year-old billionaire tycoon is both loved and loathed for his outspoken activism.

Many in Hong Kong have praised him for his continued support of the pro-democracy movement—both financially and through action. He is one of the fiercest critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party regime and offers a rare voice of dissent amongst Hong Kong’s media elite.

Lai’s arrest on Monday drew international condemnation from leaders like Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. National Security Advisor Robert C.O’Brien.

“Jimmy and his colleagues are powerful voices for the fundamental rights and liberties that Beijing guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong, but that it now systematically attacks.  O’Brien said in a statement on Tuesday. “As a newspaperman, entrepreneur and citizen, Jimmy Lai has exercised, celebrated and defended liberty by warning what Hong Kong would be without it.”

But in mainland China, where he fled from by boat at the age of 12, Lai has been branded a “traitor to national security” by state media. Chinese state tabloid Global Times called him a “riot leader” in June.

Lai has been arrested for protest-related offenses on several occasions in the past. In 2015, firebombs were thrown near his home and near the offices of his media company, Next Media Group.

Lai, who, according to the BBC, also holds British citizenship, has pledged to remain in Hong Kong to continue the fight for democracy, despite being targeted by the wide-reaching national security law. The controversial law, which threatens a maximum sentence of life in prison, has already targeted youth activists, politicians, and academics.

In an interview with AFP two weeks before his arrest, Lai revealed that he was “prepared for prison”.

“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 said.

On Monday, the U.N. human rights office told Reuters that Lai’s arrest sparked concerns that the new national security legislation was being misused to target free speech.

“We repeat our calls to monitor and review the operation of the National Security Law and to amend it if necessary to ensure there is no scope for its misuse to restrict human rights guaranteed by international law and the Basic Law of Hong Kong,” Jeremy Laurence, spokesman for the office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, told Reuters.

VICE News contacted the Hong Kong Bar Association but it declined to comment on Lai’s case.

Hong Kong-based rights lawyer Chester Wong told VICE News that the Lai’s arrest, along with the arrest of pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow, are aimed at stifling opposition voices.

“The national security law may still be in its infancy stages, but its effects that we are already seeing are chilling and spell out dire consequences for those arrested,” Wong said.

He added that in a worst-case scenario, Lai could be sent to mainland China for a trial.

“It is important to remember that the law was determined by powers in Beijing who imposed it on Hong Kong,” Wong said. “The way that they have enforced it was harsh and is a sign that things in Hong Kong are changing rapidly.”

The Hong Kong-based Civil Rights Observer group noted the severity of possible charges facing Lai. “Those arrested under the national security law could be detained up to 48 hours and may be asked to surrender travel documents,” a representative told VICE News.

Simon Young, a law professor and associate dean of research at Hong Kong University, believes the case will remain in Hong Kong.

“Under Hong Kong law, a person is arrested first before being charged. I don’t expect the case of Jimmy Lai and others to be transferred and handled under mainland Chinese jurisdiction. If it were to happen, it would have happened already,” Young told VICE News.

“There is nothing to suggest that authorities and courts in Hong Kong can’t handle it,” he said in an emailed response.

Young said that Hong Kong police will have 48 hours to interrogate suspects, after which they must either be charged and brought before a court or released.

He said Lai’s case will serve as a benchmark for future cases involving the new law.

“It’s still too early to say but the recent arrests will indeed serve as test cases for everyone in Hong Kong of how the national security law will operate in practice.”