By arresting Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai and launching a largescale raid of his newspaper offices, China’s Government delivered its clearest message yet that it won’t wait to target leading figures in the city’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement.
Just over a month since Beijing imposed a sweeping new national security law for Hong Kong that broadly outlaws many forms of dissent, officials dispatched police to strike their biggest target.
Jimmy Lai has been arrested before for various protest-related offences, but seeing him led away in handcuffs this time is different.
China’s Government now has a legal weapon to put him behind bars for life.
Police blocked other media from taking photos as hundreds of officers raided the newsroom of his newspaper, Apple Daily.
It confirmed the fears of many that the staunchly pro-protest, anti-Beijing media outlet was also in the firing line.
Hong Kong police said Mr Lai and one of his sons were detained on suspicion of violating one of the crimes in the new law: colluding with foreign forces.
Mr Lai also faces incitement charges.
Along with a second son and several media executives from his company, he is facing fraud allegations relating to misuse of an office space, according to local reports.
The wording of the national security law is broad.
So while it’s not clear what exactly Mr Lai is alleged to have done, he last year met US Vice-President Mike Pence and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit to Washington.
He’s long publicly called for US diplomatic support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and was accused by China’s Government of colluding with the CIA during the protests last year —an allegation Mr Lai rejected.
How China’s law could put Jimmy Lai away for life
Like most charges in the new law, collusion carries jail terms ranging from three years to life behind bars.
Under the law, if prosecuted, Mr Lai would be tried by one of the judges handpicked by China’s Government to preside over national security cases in Hong Kong courts.
But a clause exists to try suspects on the mainland in exceptional circumstances.
The arrest came just days after the US imposed sanctions on top officials in Hong Kong, including the head of the Chinese Government’s Liaison Office, Luo Huining, and the city’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.
The US, along with Australia and several other countries, have also suspended extradition treaties with Hong Kong since the new law came into effect.
Hu Xijin, a prominent state media voice in China, suggested on Twitter the arrests were linked to those moves by the West.
“In the future, the sanctions will also push the hearts and minds of entire [Hong Kong] society to the Chinese mainland, promoting China’s unity,” the editor-in-chief of the Global Times wrote.
But this isn’t tit for tat.
Jimmy Lai has been a thorn in China’s side
China’s Government has long marked Jimmy Lai as a “traitor” and last year labelled him and three others as being part of a “Gang of Four” accused of seeding chaos in Hong Kong.
His media outlet has been criticised as sensationalist and, at times, discriminatory towards mainland Chinese.
But it was unapologetically supportive of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and featured front page appeals for people to turn out for protests last year.
“The arrest of Lai and his associates and relatives, together with the raid on the offices of his media company, are a clear and direct assault on Hong Kong’s free press,” said Antony Daparin, a Hong Kong barrister and author who wrote a book on last year’s protest movement.
The arrest of Jimmy Lai comes after authorities announced charges against six people in exile, including prominent political figure Nathan Law, who presciently fled to the UK ahead of the new law’s introduction.
He too has been rallying international support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and has been charged with collusion — meaning he’ll never be able to return to Hong Kong.
Another high-profile activist, Joshua Wong, has been targeted by Chinese government media in the past for meeting US consulate officials in Hong Kong.
He already declared he’d be a likely target of the national security law.
Aside from being banned from running in now-delayed local elections, he’s also facing a court appearance next month along with Jimmy Lai for attending a Tiananmen Square crackdown commemoration protest that police didn’t approve.
The impact of China’s new law has been dramatic
When China’s Government imposed the new law on Hong Kong on June 30, in response to last year’s large and violent protests, many were surprised just how broad and restrictive it was.
Many activists and legal figures who freely took interviews before the new law suddenly went mute, privately saying they’d need to be careful while they felt out the new limits.
But with 27 years to go of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” deal supposedly ensuring a large degree of autonomy for the city, many wondered if authorities would use a light touch — at least initially — to avoid antagonising a city on edge.
With the arrest of Jimmy Lai, China’s Government has answered that question definitively — and is rapidly making fear the weapon to rid Hong Kong of opposition voices.