by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Studio Incendo/Flickr/CC

JIMMY LAI, the owner of the Apple Daily and Next Digital, was arrested today under the provisions of the Hong Kong national security law. Next Digital is the parent company of the Apple Daily, a widely-read pro-democracy tabloid in Hong Kong, and was previously known as Next Daily.

Lai’s two sons and at least seven other senior staff members were also taken into custody on various charges, including Next Digital Media Chief Executive Officer Cheung Kim-hung, Chief Finance Officer Royston Chow Tat-kuen, Chief Administrative Officer Wong Wai-keung, and Next Media Animation director Kith Ng Tat-kong.

Lai was arrested from his home in Ho Man Tin. Legal charges against Lai seem to have become increasingly common in past months, with Lai arrested in February on charges of participating in an illegal demonstration, a protest march on August 31st last year, and facing charges earlier this year over claims that he had threatened an Oriental Daily reporter in 2017 at the annual Tiananmen Square commemoration.

Apple Daily’s live feed of the police raid on their offices

Shortly after Lai’s arrest, which took place at 7 AM, over two hundred police were mobilized to search the Apple Daily and Next Digital‘s offices at 10 AM. Police reports initially did not refer to searching the offices of the Apple Daily only that they were acting on search warrants to search an office building. The Apple Daily also claimed that police initially did not present a search warrant when they began searching its offices. Police gathered twenty-five boxes of documents. Though they claimed that they did not enter the news offices of the newspaper, which their warrant did not cover, police were photographed searching through the desks of news reporters. Lai was later brought to the Apple Daily’s offices, where he was asked for comment.

In past weeks, the Hong Kong government has engaged in a political crackdown against pro-democracy activists, using the national security law that was passed by China’s National People’s in July. Last month, the Hong Kong government banned twelve pro-democracy candidates from running in Legislative Council elections, arrested four activists of a since disbanded localist group for social media posts, most of which were teenagers, and issued arrest warrants for six activists that had fled overseas. Such moves indicate a renewed focus by the Hong Kong government on targeting overseas groups. The Hong Kong government has also announced the delay of LegCo elections, using the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext for the delay.

It is to be questioned whether Lai’s arrest and the raid on the Apple Daily’s offices signal that the Hong Kong government will next turn toward targeting media. The Hong Kong government seems to be testing the limits of the national security law and, in targeting one of the largest pro-democracy media outlets, the Hong Kong government may be hoping to make an example of the Apple Daily.

Stand News’ live stream of the search of Cafe Seasons, a restaurant owned by Jimmy Lai’s son, Ian Lai

Indeed, among the charges faced by Lai and associates are that they are colluding with foreign forces and engaging in fraud, gesturing toward the charges that the Hong Kong government is likely to use against media outlets. Lai was a proponent of US sanctions as a response to Chinese actions, hence the charges of colluding with foreign forces. Notably, the Hong Kong police prevented international media outlets including AFP, the Associated Press, Reuters, and Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK from covering the raid on the Apple Daily, though RTHK was later allowed to enter. Adding insult to injury, the police sought to prevent the Apple Daily from covering a raid on its own offices, with police taking down the IDs of Apple Daily reporters that were on-site but some reporters live streaming the incident anyway. The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association, Hong Kong Foreign Correspondent’s Club, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have been among those to denounce the raid. The Taiwanese Presidential Office also issued a condemnation.

In the meantime, the Chinese government issued sanctions on eleven American politicians and heads of organizations, including US senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton, Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth, Freedom House head Michael Abramowitz, National Endowment for Democracy president Derek Mitchell, and others. It is unclear whether these sanctions were timed to take place in the same timeframe as the raid, or whether these were a response to a visit to Taiwan by American Secretary for Health and Human Services Alex Azar. However, the Chinese government also sent warplanes to the airspace around Taiwan as a show of force against Azar’s visit.

It is to be seen whether the raid on the Apple Daily will have a chilling effect on the Hong Kong media landscape. Indeed, with a media outlet with as many resources as the Apple Daily targeted, this may also be aimed at intimidating smaller outlets, who would have fewer resources to try and legally fight off incursions by the Hong Kong police.

Stand News live stream of Next Digital’s offices being searched

It is also highly possible that the Hong Kong government intends to target not only media outlets, but individual journalists. Wilson Li, a freelance journalist for UK broadcaster ITV and a former member of Scholarism, was also among those targeted today.

But in an unusual move, Next Digital’s stocks surged today with calls online to buy stocks of the company as a sign of support, resulting in the company’s stock value tripling to 344%. This is likely an indicator that support for pro-democracy media outlets in Hong Kong remains strong. The “Yellow Economic Circle” of businesses and their consumers supportive of the pro-democracy protests is likely to back pro-democracy media outlets such as Next Digital, in spite of actions by the Hong Kong government.

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