Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai arrested under new national security law | World news

One of Hong Kong’s most strident pro-democracy figures has been arrested and the newspaper he runs searched by police in a stark escalation by authorities enforcing new national security laws brought in by Beijing.

The raid on Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy daily paper, and arrest of Jimmy Lai and senior executives, were condemned by activists and journalists, who said they marked “the day press freedom officially died”.

Lai, a 71-year-old media tycoon and outspoken funder of the pro-democracy movement, was arrested alongside six others including his son, on suspicion of “collusion with foreign forces” and conspiracy to commit fraud on Monday morning.

“The police operation is still ongoing and does not rule out more arrests,” the police force said.

Police officers inside Apple Daily headquarters

Police officers inside Apple Daily headquarters Photograph: GNPHOTO-DAVID/AP

Lai’s arrest, while not unexpected, has alarmed the city, which has been on edge after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law outlawing sedition and secessionist activities, and collusion with foreign forces.

Lai, who also holds UK citizenship, is the most high-profile figure detained under the law, and if charged with foreign collusion offences would faces potential sentences of three to 10 years in prison – or up to life for an offence “of a grave nature”.

In 2019 state media labelled him one of a new Gang of Four conspiring against Beijing. He is already facing several charges over involvement in last year’s pro-democracy protests, and was one of 25 people charged on Friday over attending a Tiananmen Square massacre vigil on 4 June.

A report in hawkish Chinese state media mouthpiece The Global Times labeled Lai a “modern-day traitor” and suggested he was unlikely to receive bail and would face “heavy penalties”.

Hong Kong journalists have repeatedly warned the security laws would have a chilling affect on media in the territory.

Activist and legislator Eddie Chu-hoi Dick accused the Chinese Communist Party of wanting to close Apple Daily, and said Lai’s arrest was “the first step of [a] HK media blackout”.

Hours after his arrest Lai was marched, handcuffed, through the Apple Daily newsroom as hundreds of police streamed into the building, confiscating documents and casually rifling through papers on journalists’ desks. Live streams of the raid were watched by tens of thousands, and appeared to give the lie to police claims that they would not be targeting any “news materials” in their search.

Later, police barred numerous news organisations including Reuters, Agence France-Presse, the Associated Press, and the publicly funding broadcaster RTHK, from attending a press conference about the search.

The Hong Kong journalist Association head, Chris Yeung, said the raid was “horrendous”. “I think in some third-world countries there has been this kind of press freedom suppression, I just didn’t expect it to be in Hong Kong,” he told media.

Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy legislator and a former journalist, said she was more surprised by the raid than the arrest.

“This is just so drastic and blatant,” she told the Guardian. “They’re sending a clear warning signal to the Hong Kong media, plus any foreign media stationed here, to behave, to watch out.”

Keith Richburg, veteran correspondent and now head of Hong Kong University’s media school, said the raid and arrests of Lai and newspaper executives were outrageous.

“I think that’s the day you can say that is the day press freedom officially died, and it didn’t die a natural death. It was killed by Beijing and it was killed by Carrie Lam and Hong Kong police.”

Is China pushing Hong Kong further away with its new security law? – video explainer

The police operation marked the first time the new security law has been used against media in Hong Kong, which has historically had a high level of press freedom. Last month the New York Times announced it was moving part of its Hong Kong bureau to South Korea, and several outlets have complained of foreign journalist visas not being renewed. On Monday the Standard news website reported the immigration department had established a national security unit to vet “sensitive” visa applications, including from journalists.

The arrests prompted some speculation that it was retaliation for US sanctions against senior Hong Kong officials, including the chief executive, Carrie Lam. The accusations of foreign collusion against Lai have been at least partly driven by his meetings with and support from senior US figures including secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China academic at the University of California, said the current circumstances were potentially more severe than Lai’s previous arrests, which occurred prior to the implementation of new law, when there was “still a separation of powers” in Hong Kong.

“There is the risk, under this frightening new normal, that he could be taken to the mainland to be tried,” he said.

Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chair of Hong Kong Watch, said: “To arrest one of the most moderate, peaceful and internationally respected voices for democracy in Hong Kong – on charges of ‘collusion’ with foreign powers – sends the message that no one is safe in Hong Kong unless they stay completely silent and do exactly as Xi Jinping’s brutal regime says.”

On Monday afternoon the stock price of Next Digital, Apple Daily’s parent company owned by Lai, had risen more than 300% after some analysts reportedly said they would buy in support of Lai and in protest against his arrest.

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