The pro-democracy media mogul Lai and activist Chow are the highest profile arrests made under Beijing’s sweeping national security law.
The fears of many pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were realised Monday following the arrest of media tycoon Jimmy Lai, activist Agnes Chow and others, in the most prominent arrests made under Hong Kong’s national security law to date.
71-year-old Lai, his two sons and four senior executives were apprehended after an unprecedented raid by hundreds of police officials on Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy daily paper.
After an operation that spanned over 12 hours, Hong Kong police said that most of those detained were suspected of colluding with foreign powers, a crime punishable by life imprisonment.
The 23-year-old pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow was arrested in a separate incident. She was charged with calling upon foreign countries to impose sanctions on China via social media.
It marked the first time that the law has been used against the media in Hong Kong, which has historically enjoyed a high level of press freedom.
Beijing’s national security law was enacted upon the semi-autonomous territory earlier this summer, which imposes maximum sentences of life in prison for offenses such as subverting state power, advocating for Hong Kong’s independence, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces. It grants authorities wide-ranging powers to search premises and electronic devices and seize servers, including from media organisations.
The sweeping decree triggered strong international condemnation once it was passed and escalated tensions with the US. The US Treasury Department sanctioned Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other officials for “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly” last week, citing the legislation.
Who is Jimmy Lai?
Originally from mainland China, Lai was smuggled into Hong Kong as a child and worked his way to the top of the city’s clothing industry as the founder of the retailer Giordano.
Lai points to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre as the moment of his political awakening.
“I was Chinese but could never relate to China,” Lai said in an interview later that year. “I lived with that typical contradiction of overseas Chinese. But the students in Tiananmen changed all that.”
Lai founded the city’s Apple Daily newspaper in 1995, two years before Hong Kong’s secession to China from Britain.
Under the “One country, two systems” model after handover, Hong Kong was supposed to retain a degree of autonomy until 2047.
As Beijing’s moves to clamp down on freedoms increased over the years, Lai’s pro-democracy paper grew more popular and became one of the city’s most-read publications.
Lai has remained stridently critical of Beijing, and drew ire from many Chinese outlets that accused him of treason.
Lai, who also holds British citizenship, participated in numerous pro-democracy rallies over the years. In February, he was arrested over his earlier participation in a protest but then released.
“I’m prepared for prison,” Lai said earlier this summer.
“Hong Kong’s press freedom is now hanging by a thread, but our staff will remain fully committed to our duty to defend the freedom of the press,” Apple Daily’s publisher, Next Digital, said in a statement.
Who is Agnes Chow?
Chow rose to prominence when she was 17 during the 2014 student protests in Hong Kong, and emerged as one of the most recognised faces of the city’s protest movement alongside Joshua Wong and Nathan Law.
Following the 2014 protests, Chow along with other activists founded the pro-democracy Demosisto party in 2016, which has been a frequent target for authorities in recent years.
Chow renounced her British citizenship to run for the city’s Legislative Council in 2018, but her bid was rejected after she published a manifesto that called for the self-determination of Hong Kong.
After being arrested at a pro-democracy protest last summer, Chow was banned from leaving the city.
In a Skype recording this January, she said that “we are just small ants in front of the Chinese government, and they wish to – of course I don’t want to see it happening but – something like [the] Tiananmen crackdown could take place”.
Despite having quit Demosisto and shut down her Twitter account, Chow’s arrest has led Joshua Wong to argue that “it clearly proves that the national security law is retrospective.”