The arrest of media tycoon Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong here on Monday marks the highest-profile use of the city's new treason law, written and imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing to allow it to eliminate its critics. It is also a clear attempt to stifle free speech and intimidate the media.
In the early hours of Monday morning, the Hong Kong police seized Lai at his Hong Kong home. Lai has been a frequent visitor to the United States, lobbying U.S. politicians including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. That diplomacy led mainland China's leadership to dub him a "traitor."
Lai also has met with leading China hawks such as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Both those politicians are on a list of 11 U.S. politicians and human-rights leaders slapped with sanctions by China on Monday.
China's action is tit-for-tat retaliation. The United States last week sanctioned Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, and 10 other officials from Hong Kong and mainland China for violating civic freedoms in Hong Kong. U.S. senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley are also on China's list. Hong Kong's current and ex-chief of police, Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng and Security Secretary John Lee are all on the U.S. list.
On Monday, the Hong Kong police stated on social media that "at least nine local males" have been arrested on "suspicion of collusion with a foreign country/external elements to endanger national security, conspiracy to defraud and other offences."
Collusion in my book (well, actually the dictionary) means "secret or illegal cooperation" or a "conspiracy." It is hard to see how a public meeting in Washington that you publicize in your best-selling publications possibly can be construed as secret or a conspiracy.
But today it is. Lai has been arrested alongside his two sons and several high-ranking executives at his media company. Lai is one of the most famous pro-democracy voices in the city and one of Communist China's fiercest critics. At around 11 a.m. local time he was paraded in handcuffs by police at the Apple Daily offices, which were lightly staffed due to coronavirus restrictions and people working from home.
The move has driven Hong Kong's beleaguered stocks lower, yet again. The Hang Seng index ended down 0.6%, leaving it off 13.0% for the year so far. It appears the benchmark is only heading lower as the government drags the city backwards in history, to 1960s thought-control China. The Lai arrest is simply another step toward Communist-style dictatorship that this city seems to take, every day. Investors should avoid Hong Kong stocks.
There is one exception to the down day for stocks in Hong Kong. Shares of Lai's Next Digital HK:0282, soared 183.3% as Lai's supporters bought into the company. The shares initially moved down 16.7% after word of the arrest before it became a point of protest to buy the shares. The penny stock tripled at one point and leaves the company with a market cap of US$86.7 million.
Collusion and treason are apparently how Beijing and its minions see any form of meeting with a U.S. politician. Any U.S. entity is a potential "foreign force," which sounds like it means "foreign army" but could mean the Bank of America, Boy Scouts of America or Mall of America, for all I know. Those sorts of terms aren't defined by Beijing in any law. Chinese President Xi Jinping presumably was colluding when he had a chat with U.S. President Donald Trump in Osaka at the G20 summit in June 2019.
'Wrong U.S. behavior'
The 11 U.S. figures have been slapped with sanctions due to "wrong U.S. behavior," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday. The individuals, faced with as-yet unidentified punishment, have "behaved egregiously on Hong Kong-related issues."
Arresting media figures for doing their job is pretty egregious. "Today is the end of Hong Kong's press freedom," pro-democracy advocate Joshua Wong, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, told the BBC on Monday about Lai's arrest.
Lai does not have the global profile of Wong, who came to the fore as a teen activist during the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. Wong became the first Hong Konger nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Nathan Law (now in exile in Britain) and Alex Chow by a group of U.S. congressmen led by Rubio and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, who is also on the sanctions list China issued Monday.
But Lai is no less influential than Wong, and much-loved as an anti-establishment truth-telling rebel here. Lai made a fortune in clothing with the GAP-like clothing chain Giordano. He took that money and invested it in Apple Daily, a tabloid with the largest circulation in a city that consumes news voraciously. His empire also publishes Next, the best-read glossy magazine.
Lai, born in Guangzhou on the mainland, is one of the fiercest voices against the Communists. Heir to a wealthy family that lost everything in the Communist Revolution, he escaped from behind the Bamboo Curtain at age 12, smuggled to freedom in Hong Kong on a fishing boat. He loves China but hates the Communists.
Not Lai's first rodeo
This is the latest in a string of arrests for Lai. He and 12 other pro-democracy figures were charged last month with "inciting" an unlawful assembly after they held the annual memorial for the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4. The event was cancelled this year under the trumped-up excuse that it was a Covid-19 risk.
Lai's top aide, Mark Simon, told the BBC that one of Lai's trials is approaching in two weeks. With that case out of the way, Lai could have traveled out of the city. That explains the timing of this arrest, says Simon, an American citizen who is out of the country but also now sought by the Hong Kong police.
It is possible Lai will be extradited to face a kangaroo court in China. But under the new treason law, Hong Kong now can rig its own kangaroo court with a judge hand-picked by Beijing's chosen leader in the city and no jury.
The Hong Kong government and authorities selectively are using any law they can find to beat their pro-democracy critics into submission. Hong Kong is famous for its rule of law; now the puppet government and the police it directs are attempting to rule by law in this once-free city.
Why is Lai being arrested? We don't really know. The pretext is the new National Security law that came into effect as of July 1. The treason-and-sedition law is not supposed to be deployed retroactively. It is also not necessary for the charges to be revealed or for the trial to be held out in the open, where all can see.
Courts in mainland China last year had a conviction rate of 99.9%. During last year's pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong it became clear that the Beijing authorities do not understand the difference between the president's administration, the government, the police and the courts; in China they are merely different arms of the same dictatorial beast.
Hong Kong used to be a bastion of free press in Asia, but no more. The sedition law brings China's Orwellian attempts at thought control into the city.
Apple Daily streamed live as some 200 police officers entered parent company Next Digital's headquarters and rifled through the desks of reporters, seizing box on box of files. They refused to answer questions about the scope of their warrant, idly lifting up whatever piece of paper that caught their eye.
Foreign media such as the Associated Press and even local government broadcaster RTHK were obstructed from reporting Monday's arrest of Lai and barred from the on-site police press conference, which only admitted pro-Beijing media. A police officer said the force was hand-picking media who "had not obstructed or posed a safety threat to officers in police operations in the past," according to RTHK.
The Foreign Correspondent's Club in Hong Kong condemned Lai's arrest and the raid on the newspaper. Mainland and Hong Kong officials promised the treason-and-sedition law would only target a tiny number of hard-core offenders. "Today's police action upends those assurances," the club stated in its response to the arrests. Inviting only hand-picked pro-establishment publications to briefings will "mark the end of press freedom in Hong Kong and no critical coverage available to the public."
"Instead of the free flow of information, Hong Kong will have only propaganda," it added. That is how Beijing would love life in Hong Kong to be.
Here in Hong Kong, it feels like 1984. It feels like 1930s Germany. The thought police have come for Jimmy Lai, chiefly for championing democracy. But the message is clearly that anyone - me, and even you, because the treason law applies internationally - could be next.