Hong Kong police’s arrest of media tycoon Jimmy Lai under the city’s new national security law has drawn condemnation from officials and activists around the world, who say the move was an attack on press freedom and snuffed out the territory’s dwindling autonomy.
Lai, a strident critic of the Chinese communist regime, was arrested on Aug. 10, along with his two sons, on allegations of collusion with foreign forces. Later that day, more than 200 police officers raided the newsroom of Lai’s newspaper Apple Daily, the largest pro-democracy outlet in the city.
Several other media and pro-democracy figures were also arrested Monday, including prominent activist Agnes Chow. Police later said 10 people—nine men and one woman—were arrested, without naming them.
Lai’s 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 program coordinator.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet that he was “deeply troubled” by the arrest, which was “[f]urther proof that the CCP has eviscerated Hong Kong’s freedoms and eroded the rights of its people,” referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
The UK government said the arrests were further evidence of the national security law being used as a “pretext to silence opposition.” Hong Kong was a former British colony until the territory was handed back to China in 1997.
Hong Kong authorities have cracked down on pro-democracy elements in the city since the national security law came into effect last month. The law punishes any actions Beijing considers subversion, secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison. Prior to the law’s implementation, Beijing and the Hong Kong government said that it would only be used against a small minority of criminals, and would not impinge on the city’s freedoms.
Since July, popular protest slogans have been outlawed and pro-democracy candidates were disqualified from running in legislative elections. Later, the government said the election would be postponed for a year, citing the pandemic as the reason for the delay. Before Monday, 15 people, including teenagers, had been arrested under the new law.
The Chinese regime applauded Lai’s arrest.
A spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office told state-run media Xinhua that Lai was representative of people who were “anti-China, anti-Hong Kong,” and that he planned and instigated “illegal” protests, funded pro-independence forces, and used his media group to spread rumors. The Chinese regime has pushed the narrative that the mass protest movement ignited last year was fomented by foreign countries to incite chaos.
Lai, 71, had previously visited Washington, where he met officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Pompeo, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy.
Last week, the United States imposed sanctions on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and 10 other Chinese and Hong Kong officials over their roles in subverting the city’s freedoms through implementing the new law. Beijing retaliated on Monday by sanctioning 11 U.S. citizens, including federal lawmakers and heads of U.S.-based nonprofits and rights groups.
While the arrests and raid on Apple Daily have heightened fears that local press will face tightening controls under the new law, Hong Kong-based journalists said they would not be cowed.
“We will continue to strive for the truth and report what’s happening in Hong Kong without fear or favor,” Jessie Pang, Hong Kong correspondent for Reuters, wrote in a tweet.
Hong Kong, which historically has had high levels of press freedoms, has seen a sharp decline in the media environment in recent years due to Beijing’s growing control over the city.
Apple Daily executive Chan Pui-man said the newspaper will continue to be published on Tuesday.
“Even if Apple Daily publish a pile of blank paper tomorrow, we would go and buy a copy,” prominent local activist Joshua Wong said on Twitter.
Reuters contributed to the report.