Jimmy Lai, the founder of Next Digital, has resigned as the chairman of the company while he faces multiple charges. He was recently prosecuted under the new national security law imposed by the Chinese regime on Hong Kong. Experts fear that Lai could be extradited to mainland China for trial and they call on the Hong Kong government to exercise judicial independence from Beijing.
Next Digital, founded in 1995 and previously known as Next Media, released a statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange on Dec. 29, saying Lai has stepped down from his positions as chairman and executive director "in order to spend more time dealing with his personal affairs."
The company also announced that director Ip Yut Kin will replace Lai as chairman.
Lai, 72, is a prominent pro-democracy figure in Hong Kong. The Apple Daily newspaper that his company owns is one of the few remaining media outlets in the city that openly criticizes the Hong Kong government and Chinese communist regime. Lai and his media have supported the pro-democracy and anti-extradition bill protests that have rocked the city. The extradition bill was formally withdrawn in October last year.
Under Hong Kong’s new national security law, Lai was charged with “colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security.” He has repeatedly called on the international community through Apple Daily and his Twitter account to impose sanctions on China and pro-Beijing Hong Kong officials for eroding Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy.
Lai was arrested in August when about 200 police officers raided Apple Daily’s newsroom. He was also charged with fraud related to the lease of a building that houses Apple Daily. He was initially denied bail during a court hearing on Dec. 3 and was denied a bail for a second time on Dec. 12.
Lai was eventually granted bail of HKD$10 million ($1.3 million) by the Hong Kong High Court on Dec 23. The bail terms are strict as Lai is confined at home, and banned from giving interviews to the media, posting on social media, or contacting foreign officials in any form. He was also required to surrender his passport and report to the police station three times a week, according to Apple Daily.
Hong Kong prosecutors filed an urgent appeal against Lai’s bail on Dec. 24. Lai will face his next bail hearing on Dec. 31 before Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal.
Chinese state-run media criticized the High Court’s decision to grant him bail. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s mouthpiece People's Daily called the court’s decision “unbelievable” and "severely undermining the authority of Hong Kong’s national security law." It claimed that there are legal grounds to send Lai’s case to mainland China for trial and demanded China’s National Security Bureau, a newly established agency to implement Hong Kong’s security law, to intervene.
The national security law went into effect late June 30 after ceremonial votes by the CCP’s rubber-stamp legislature. The law criminalizes individuals for alleged acts of subversion, secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces against the CCP, with maximum penalties of life imprisonment.
The law has been condemned by the West and human rights groups. Critics say it would be used as a tool by the CCP to crush dissent under the guise of safeguarding “national security” and would undermine the city’s judicial independence which was guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Under the treaty governing Hong Kong’s handover of sovereignty to China from Britain in 1997, the Chinese regime had agreed to preserve the city’s autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in the mainland, under a framework known as “one country, two systems.”
According to articles 55, 56, and 57 of the security law, if a case involves a complicated situation with foreign forces and endangers national security, and the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is having difficulties with handling the case, then the Chinese regime’s top prosecutor’s office and highest court can exercise judicial power, applying the criminal law of China.
Chung Kim-wah, deputy chief executive officer of the nonprofit Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, told the BBC that the CCP’s state media have repeatedly criticized Lai’s bail to “press Hong Kong courts” in recent days. He believes that Lai is likely to be detained again on Dec. 31 and more likely to be sent to mainland China for trial as a warning to others.
Hong Kong senior lawyer and politician Ronny Tong said that the Hong Kong court did not violate any legal principles when Lai was granted bail, according to a report by the Chinese language Sound of Hope Radio Network. He calls on the Hong Kong government to allow the courts to hear cases under an independent judicial system and not to use political means to resolve controversial issues.