HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy 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.
Mainland-born Lai, who was smuggled into Hong Kong on a fishing boat when he was a penniless 12-year-old, has been one of the most prominent democracy activists in the Chinese-ruled city and an ardent critic of Beijing.
His arrest comes amid Beijing’s crackdown against pro-democracy opposition in the city and further stokes concerns about media and other freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to China in 1997. China imposed the sweeping new security law on Hong Kong on June 30, drawing condemnation from Western countries.
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 and pro-democracy tabloid that also does investigative work, told Reuters the paper would not 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 pro-democracy protests last year.
Lai, 71, had been a frequent visitor to Washington, where he has met officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor”.
Hong Kong police said they had arrested “at least” nine men, 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.
Apple Daily, which posted on its Facebook page a livestream of police officers roaming through its newsroom and rifling through files, reported that Lai had been taken from his home early on Monday.
The live feed showed staff being asked to show identity documents. Some executive offices were sealed off with red cordons. The police later wheeled in stacks of empty plastic containers.
Lai himself was brought back to the office later, initially in handcuffs.
“We can’t worry that much, we can only go with the flow,” Lai said, before being escorted into a police vehicle.
Police said around 200 officers entered the premises with a court warrant. The law allows police to search premises without one “under exceptional circumstances”, and also allows documents, equipment and financial assets to be seized.
The search was finished by mid-afternoon, and police said they had collected 25 boxes of evidence.
Apple Daily reported that one of Lai’s sons, Ian, had also been arrested at his home and later showed his restaurant, Cafe Seasons, being raided by police.
Shares in Lai’s media company Next Digital (0282.HK), which publishes Apple Daily, plunged 16.7% before rebounding to trade 344% higher as online pro-democracy forums called on investors to buy shares as a show of support.
An Apple Daily source said that other senior executives in the company were among those targeted and they were hiring lawyers. Executive Director Cheung Kim-hung was seen escorted by police out of the building.
“We see this as straight harassment,” the source said, adding that Lai was arrested on suspicion of sedition, criminal fraud and colluding with foreign forces.
In a statement, Next Media Trade Union called the search “an extremely rare and serious incident in Hong Kong history”, with a “catastrophic” impact.
It said journalists “will continue to guard their posts until the last minute”.
Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Chris Yeung said the search was akin to “third-world” press freedom suppression.
In major cases in Hong Kong, the central government in Beijing can claim jurisdiction. The legislation allows agents to take suspects across the border for trials in Communist Party-controlled courts.
Apple Daily executive Chan Pui-man said the newspaper will be published on Tuesday.
“Even if Apple Daily publish a pile of blank paper tomorrow, we would go and buy a copy,” prominent young activist Joshua Wong said on Twitter.
In a Reuters interview in May, Lai pledged to stay in Hong Kong and continue to fight for democracy.
Before Monday, 15 people, including teenagers, had been arrested under the new law, which has seen activists disbanding their organisations or fleeing the city.
The United States on Friday imposed sanctions on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and other officials, drawing mockery and condemnation from Beijing.
The arrest reflects that Hong Kong “wasn’t intimidated” by sanctions, Global Times editor Hu Xijin said in a tweet. Global Times is published by China’s official Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily.