clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A top Hong Kong pro-democracy figure was arrested. Beijing isn’t playing around.

Jimmy Lai, a media executive, was arrested along with others in a blow to Hong Kong’s freedoms.

A handout photo from Apple Daily showing Hong Kong business tycoon Jimmy Lai led by police officers during a search at the headquarters of Apple Daily. Lai was arrested at his home on August 10, 2020, in Hong Kong, China.
Handout via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Hong Kong authorities arrested a prominent pro-democracy media mogul on Monday, another sign that the sweeping national security law imposed by China last month is stifling the territory’s freedoms.

Jimmy Lai was detained Monday over allegations of colluding with foreign powers. Lai is the found and owner of Next Digital, which publishes Apple Daily, a Hong Kong publication that has backed the pro-democracy protests. Lai himself has been outspoken in his support for the pro-democracy camp and has been arrested before for allegedly participating in an unauthorized pro-democracy protest.

Two of Lai’s sons were also arrested Monday, along with Cheung Kim-hung, Next Digital’s CEO. Agnes Chow, a high-profile leader in Hong Kong’s democracy movement, was also detained. In total, Hong Kong authorities said at least 10 people, ages 23 to 72, were arrested on national-security and other charges, including advocating for foreign sanctions.

Lai is one of the most notable figures arrested under the new national security law that went into effect July 1. The law gives China broad powers to crack down on dissent, which includes loosely defined crimes of “secession, subversion, organization and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements.” It also carries harsh penalties, including the potential for life imprisonment.

Lai’s detainment has chilling implications for press freedom in Hong Kong. More than 200 police raided Apple Daily’s office, an operation that took nine hours, according to the South China Morning Post.

Apple Daily reporters livestreamed the raid, showing police officers rummaging through papers on reporters’ desks. Chinese authorities brought Lai to the offices during the raid, escorting him through the offices as police searched. According to the Washington Post, authorities carted away 25 boxes worth of material.

In a thread posted on Twitter, Apple Daily accused police of ignoring the terms of the search warrant “and rifled through news materials, as well as restricting press members from reporting and obstructing a news organization from operating.”

“Beijing’s national security law for Hong Kong claims to guarantee residents’ freedom of speech, of the press and of publication, but the authorities’ actions have proved otherwise,” the statement continued. “Raiding a news institution is a severe attack on press freedom and should not be tolerated in a civilized society.”

Apple Daily described Hong Kong’s press freedom as “hanging by thread,” though it vowed to fight on.

“The arrest of Jimmy Lai and Agnes Chow (one of the student activist leaders) is the largest affront yet to violations of freedom of speech and press in Hong Kong,” Lynette H. Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto told me in an email.

“It will have a huge chilling effect on the Hong Kong community,” Ong added, “which is exactly what Beijing is trying to achieve with the [national security law].”

China’s crackdown under the national security law has been “unusually fast and unusually slow”

When Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, it was with the promise that Beijing would honor Hong Kong’s quasi-independence until at least 2047, under the rule known as “one country, two systems.”

China, though, had for years chipped and chipped away at Hong Kong’s freedoms. Now, the national security law has rapidly and dramatically accelerated the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. When it went into effect in July, Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a political science professor at Notre Dame University, called it the “complete and total control of Hong Kong and total destruction of Hong Kong’s system.”

The national security law now means everything is happening out in the open, which is targeting what the Chinese Communist Party sees as the opposition — and sending a very clear message to everyone else who might back them.

Samuel Chu, a US-based activist and managing director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, told me that this is part of China’s steady drumbeat to crack down on activists, both at home and overseas. Chu himself has been targeted for arrest under the new national security law. (The law is so expansive that even foreigners or those who speak out overseas could potentially face arrest if they ever return to Hong Kong or mainland China.)

Demonstrators allegedly advocating for Hong Kong’s independence were arrested on the first day the law went into effect; since then, student activists — who were between the ages of 16 and 21 — were charged for engaging in secessionist activities.

Hong Kong’s government has also postponed September’s Legislative Council elections, and though officials cited the coronavirus, the government had already taken steps to bar pro-democracy lawmakers from running. The Chinese government also put out those arrest warrants for Hong Kongers who’ve left the city, including Chu, a US citizen, and Nathan Law, another prominent activist and former lawmaker.

The arrest of Lai and others is the latest example of China’s crackdown. “I have no doubt that this is all orchestrated as a way of demonstrating the complete control they want to have in Hong Kong,” Chu said. “They’re systematically pointing out, we’re not going to tolerate any dissent from anywhere, from anyone.”

Chinese state media had branded Lai as prominent pro-democracy advocate, and both he and activists such as Chow had been targeted before for their outspokenness. In May, Lai wrote an op-ed in the New York Times as China unveiled its plan to implement this new national security law. “I have always thought I might one day be sent to jail for my publications or for my calls for democracy in Hong Kong,” he said.

Allen Carlson, an associate professor at Cornell University, said it called to mind a Chinese saying, “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” In other words, Beijing is punishing a few high-profile individuals to set an example for everyone else. “The detention of Jimmy Lai and Agnes Chow are good examples of this idiom being put into place,” Carlson said, adding that it “can have a chilling effect on Hong Kong society.”

Experts, activists, and Hongkongers feared exactly this. Beyond the hardcore protesters and activists, supporters of the pro-democracy movement might think twice about whether they will continue to do so publicly now that their families and their livelihoods at stake. Activists and journalists previously deleted social media posts, essentially self-censoring themselves. The arrest of Lai and others is China’s way of saying, basically, we’re not messing around.

Ong said that these high-profile arrests might mean “things may go in one of the two directions: repression may slow down (because Beijing has successfully deterred further contention), or it may decide to ‘tighten the screw’ further.”

Whether that happens might have as much to do with what happens within Hong Kong as what’s going on in the rest of the world. That includes, critically, the status of US-China relations, which are at a dangerous low point.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor at the University of California Irvine and author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, described the blows to Hong Kong’s press freedoms and civil society as both “unusually fast and unusually slow.”

Within Hong Kong, the pace has been dizzying. But to the outside, these events are happening somewhat piecemeal — arrest warrants for foreign activists one week, canceling the Legislative Council elections a few days later, and now these mass arrests.

“There’s been a spreading out of the repressive moves,” Wasserstrom said. On the one hand, it’s been blow after blow, he said. But when it comes to international attention — particularly in the age of Covid-19 — China’s crackdowns looks a little bit more discrete rather than rapidly tightening control.

US-China tensions are the backdrop to all this

Lai’s arrest also came after the United States placed sanctions on 11 officials involved in the democratic crackdown in Hong Kong, including Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the territory’s police chief. This was a serious escalation, and though Chinese officials mocked the penalties, they retaliated by placing sanctions on US individuals, including some Republican lawmakers.

Also on Monday, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visited Taiwan, the highest-level US official to visit since 1979. Though the visit was ostensibly about Taiwan’s success in handling the coronavirus, such a trip is highly provocative to Beijing, which wants to bring Taiwan back under its control and sees any recognition of it as a violation of its “one China” policy.

“I think both sides are sort of intentionally poking the dragon and poking the eagle in order to see how far they can go — and also to bolster domestic credentials,” Carlson said. The Trump administration has blamed China for its handling of the coronavirus and is taking a tough-on-China approach in part to distract from its own failures to deal with the pandemic. And Chinese President Xi Jinping is pushing to bring Hong Kong closer under its control, one of his core interests.

That leaves Hong Kong, much like Xinjiang, caught in the middle of a superpower struggle as the territory’s freedoms unravel. “Altogether, this portends poorly for the future,” Carlson said. “We’re likely to see more arrests in Hong Kong, further crackdowns, and no one is pushing back — the US does, but not really in a credible manner.”

Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.