HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai became the highest-profile person arrested under a new national security law on Monday, detained over suspected collusion with foreign forces as around 200 police searched the offices of his Apple Daily newspaper.
Mainland-born Lai, who was smuggled into the British colony of Hong Kong on a fishing boat when he was a penniless 12-year-old, has been one of the most prominent democracy activists in the now Chinese-ruled city and an ardent critic of Beijing.
His arrest comes amid Beijing’s crackdown against pro-democracy opposition in the city and further stokes concerns about media and other promised freedoms when it returned to China in 1997. China imposed the sweeping new security law on Hong Kong on June 30, drawing condemnation from Western countries.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was “deeply troubled” by reports of the arrest, calling it further proof that the Chinese Communist Party had “eviscerated” Hong Kong’s freedoms and eroded the rights of its people.
The 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 programme coordinator.
Ryan Law, chief editor of Apple Daily, a staunch anti-government tabloid that also does investigative work, told Reuters the paper would not be intimidated.
“Business as usual,” he said.
The security law punishes anything China considers subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison. Critics say it crushes freedoms, while supporters say it will bring stability after prolonged anti-China, pro-democracy protests last year.
Beijing said it supported Lai’s arrest.
A spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office told the official Xinhua news agency Lai was a 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 rumours.
Lai, 71, had been a frequent visitor to Washington, where he has met officials, including Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor”.
Hong Kong police said they had arrested nine men and one woman, aged between 23 and 72, without naming them, adding that further arrests were possible.
Suspected offences included “collusion with a foreign country/external elements to endanger national security, conspiracy to defraud” and others, the police said.
Apple Daily posted on its Facebook page a livestream of police officers roaming through its newsroom and rifling through files, and asking staff for identity documents.
Some executive offices were sealed off with red cordons. The police later wheeled in stacks of empty plastic containers. Lai himself was brought back to the office, initially in handcuffs.
“We can’t worry that much, we can only go with the flow,” Lai said, before being escorted into a police vehicle.
Police said around 200 officers entered the premises with a court warrant and collected 25 boxes of evidence after finishing the search. The law allows police to search premises without one “under exceptional circumstances”.
In major cases in Hong Kong, the central government in Beijing can claim jurisdiction. The legislation allows agents to take suspects across the border for trials in Communist Party-controlled courts.
Apple Daily reported that one of Lai’s sons, Ian, had also been arrested at his home and later showed his restaurant, Cafe Seasons, being raided by police.
Shares in Lai’s media company Next Digital <0282.HK>, which publishes Apple Daily, plunged 16.7% before rebounding to trade 344% higher at one point as online pro-democracy forums called on investors to buy shares to show support.
Other senior Apple Daily staff, including Executive Director Cheung Kim-hung, were also arrested.
“We see this as straight harassment,” an Apple Daily source said, adding that Lai was arrested on suspicion of sedition, criminal fraud and colluding with foreign forces.
Next Media Trade Union called the search “an extremely rare and serious incident in Hong Kong history”, with a “catastrophic” impact. It said journalists “will continue to guard their posts until the last minute”.
Britain said the arrest was further evidence the security law was “a pretext to silence opposition”.
Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Chris Yeung said the search was akin to “third-world” press freedom suppression.
Apple Daily executive Chan Pui-man said the newspaper will be published on Tuesday.
“Even if Apple Daily publish a pile of blank paper tomorrow, we would go and buy a copy,” prominent young activist Joshua Wong said on Twitter.
Wong’s longtime colleague, Agnes Chow, and two other activists were among those arrested, local media reported.
In a Reuters interview in May, Lai pledged to stay in Hong Kong and continue to fight for democracy.
Before Monday, 15 people, including teenagers, had been arrested under the new law.
The United States on Friday imposed sanctions on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and other officials, drawing mockery and condemnation from Beijing.
The arrests show Hong Kong “wasn’t intimidated” by sanctions, Global Times editor Hu Xijin said in a tweet. Global Times is published by China’s official Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily.
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, Jessie Pang, Yanni Chow, Carol Mang, Noah Sin, Donny Kwok, Clare Jim, Meg Shen, Twinnie Siu, Anne Marie Roantree and Marius Zaharia in Hong Kong, Yimou Lee in Taipei, and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Raju Gopalakrishnan, William Maclean and Nick Macfie)