HONG KONG – Jimmy Lai, the media tycoon and longtime backer of Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy, faces life in prison after he was charged on Friday with “collusion with a foreign country” under Beijing’s new national security law.
Lai, who was arrested by investigators in August, is the fourth and most high-profile person charged under the security law, which seeks to eradicate dissent in Hong Kong by curtailing constitutional rights, including free speech. He has been in detention for a week for allegedly flouting terms of his office lease, and turned 72 in jail on Tuesday.
The billionaire has become a prime target of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to silence its critics, some of whom fled abroad as its crackdown on Hong Kong intensified this year. He was previously arrested in February, then in April and again in August, the latter occasion under the security law that took effect in late June.
The case against Lai heightened an environment of fear in the former British colony, where China’s increasingly tight control has become a point of contention in Beijing’s disputes with the West.
“As a well-known public figure in Hong Kong, Lai’s arrest sends a shock to many Hong Kongers,” said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Under present tensions between the U.S. and China, Lai’s arrest will also become an international case.”
In August, police officers from a newly established national security unit of the Hong Kong police swept across the city in an hours-long operation, arresting 10 people including Lai, his sons and executives at Next Digital, his media company. The arrests were accompanied by a raid on the newsroom of Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper published by Next Digital, where nearly 200 officers rifled through papers, shut journalists out of their workplace and carted off boxes of evidence.
Lai’s case will be heard in court on Saturday.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, told the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this year that the security law – which criminalizes vaguely worded offenses such as secession and foreign collusion – would not be retroactive.
Police said Friday that Lai has been charged with “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security” but did not provide details of his alleged crime.
Chinese state media has branded Lai, who became a leading critic of the Communist Party after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, a traitor and an enemy of the state.
The businessman, who founded Apple Daily with his own money in support of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, has long-standing relationships on Capitol Hill. He has lobbied Washington for support in preserving Hong Kong’s autonomy and relative freedoms compared with the Chinese mainland.
This week, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to President-elect Joe Biden, tweeted that he is “deeply concerned about the continuing arrests and imprisonment of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.” The State Department also imposed sanctions on 14 Chinese officials for Beijing’s “unrelenting assault” against Hong Kong’s democratic processes, adding to measures against other top officials, including Lam and the head of Beijing’s liaison office in the city.
Lai has been unable to travel since his passport was confiscated early this year, according to Mark Simon, his confidant and former business aide. But Lai has continued to give interviews in support of Western sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials.
Three others have been charged under the security law, including Tony Chung, a 19-year-old activist who founded a student group that called for Hong Kong’s independence. Chung was found guilty Friday on separate charges of desecrating China’s national flag and unlawful assembly. He has been in jail since October, after he was apprehended by several men while attempting to seek refuge at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong.
Tong Ying-kit, 24, was accused of riding his motorcycle into a group of police officers while carrying a flag the slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times,” synonymous with the anti-government protests that erupted in June last year.
The Hong Kong government says that slogan is now illegal. Tong pleaded not guilty to charges of inciting secession, which also carry a potential life sentence. Adam Ma, also charged under the national security law, has been accused of chanting pro-independence slogans.
Lai’s associates fear he is facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in jail, or possible extradition to mainland China. They maintain the charges against him are entirely political.
Under the national security law, Hong Kong suspects can be brought to China for trial, where the legal system is opaque and open to abuse.
“The charges against Jimmy are not about a misused lease, not even about the national security of China,” said Mark Simon, a close aide. “It is about one thing, a man who won’t bow to the Chinese Communist Party.”