Hong Kong authorities arrested a prominent Democrat on Monday, another sign that the sweeping national security legislation introduced by China last month is stifling the territory’s freedoms.
Jimmy Lai was arrested on Monday on charges of collusion with foreign powers. Lai is the founder and owner of Next Digital, which publishes Apple Daily, a publication in Hong Kong that has supported the protests of democracy. Lai himself has been outspoken in his support for the Democratic camp and has been arrested earlier for allegedly participating in an unauthorized protest Democrat protest.
Two of Lai̵
Lai is one of the most notable figures arrested under the new National Security Act which came into force on 1 July. The law gives China broad powers to merge dissent, which includes loosely defined crimes of “isolation, subversion, organization and realization of terrorist activities and cooperation with a foreign country or with external elements.” It also has severe penalties, including the possibility of life imprisonment .
Lai prison has cold consequences for press freedom in Hong Kong. More than 200 police officers attacked the Apple Daily office, an operation that took nine hours, according to the South China Morning Post.
Nearly 200 police officers from the National Security Department and police in military uniforms were on the scene. Again, this is the office of a media organization rather than the scene of a terrorist attack. pic.twitter.com/8IQE4PRWZk
– William Yang (@ WilliamYang120) August 10, 2020
After the arrest of @appledaily_hk founder @JimmyLaiApples, over 200 PTUs happened at the Apple Daily office without justification. This is an unprecedented move. Distributing such a disproportionate number of police officers to loot a newspaper office is a clear signal that HKSAR is suppressing free press pic.twitter.com/NWKHpna52L
– Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong. (@Stand_with_HK) August 10, 2020
Apple Daily reporters livestreamed the raid and showed police officers rummaging through papers on the reporter’s desk. Chinese authorities took Lai to the offices during the raid and escorted him through the offices when police searched. According to the Washington Post, authorities mapped out 25 boxes of materials.
Officials who only randomly review documents on the desk, the reporter on the live stream repeats the keyword has not yet been notified. @appledaily_hk employee asked officials what their search area was; no answer. Apple Daily lawyer not yet arriving and may not be able to enter suspended bldg pic.twitter.com/RXoDTpEfdz
– Mary Hui (@maryhui) August 10, 2020
In a thread posted on Twitter, the Apple Daily accused the police of ignoring the terms of the keyword “and shifted through news material and restricted press members from reporting and preventing a news organization from operating.”
“Beijing’s national security legislation for Hong Kong claims to guarantee residents ‘freedom of expression, press and publication, but the authorities’ actions have proved otherwise,” the statement continued. “Raiding a news agency is a serious attack on press freedom and should not be tolerated in a civilized society.”
The Apple Daily described Hong Kong’s press freedom as “hanging in the balance”, although it promised to fight on.
“The arrest of Jimmy Lai and Agnes Chow (one of the student activist leaders) is the biggest hassle yet for violations of freedom of speech and freedom of the 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 cooling effect on Hong Kong society,” Ong added, “which is exactly what Beijing is trying to achieve with [national security law]”.
China’s breakdown under national security legislation has been “unusually fast and unusually slow”
When Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, it was with a promise that Beijing would honor Hong Kong’s quasi-independence until at least 2047, under the rule known as “one country, two systems.”
For years, however, China had been captured and chipped away by Hong Kong’s freedoms. Now the National Security Act has rapidly and dramatically accelerated the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. When it came into force in July, Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a political science professor at Notre Dame University, called it “complete and total control of Hong Kong and total destruction of Hong Kong’s system.”
The National Security Act now means that everything happens outdoors, which is aimed at the Chinese Communist Party looks like the opposition – and sends a very clear message to everyone else who can back them.
Samuel Chu, a US-based activist and executive director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, told me that this is part of China’s steadfast drumming to crack down on activists, both at home and abroad. Chu himself has been targeted for arrest under the new National Security Act. (The law is so extensive that even foreigners or those who speak abroad may be arrested if they ever return to Hong Kong or China.)
Protesters claiming to advocate for Hong Kong independence were arrested on the first day of the law’s entry into force. Since then, student activists – who were between 16 and 21 years old – have been prosecuted for conducting segregation activities.
The Hong Kong government has also postponed elections to the Legislative Council in September, and although officials cited the coronavirus, the government had already taken steps to prevent democracy legislators from running. The Chinese government is also issuing arrest warrants for Hong Kongers who have left the city, including Chu, a U.S. citizen, and Nathan Law, another prominent activist and former lawmaker.
The arrest of Lai and others is the latest example of China’s breakdown. “I have no doubt that all of this is orchestrated as a way to show the complete control they want in Hong Kong,” Chu said. “They systematically point out, we will not tolerate any difference anywhere, from anyone else.”
Chinese state media had labeled Lai as a prominent pro-democracy advocate, and both he and activists like Chow had been targeted earlier for their statement. In May, Lai wrote an update in the New York Times when China unveiled its plan to implement this new national security law. “I have always thought that one day I could be sent to prison for my publications or for my demands for democracy in Hong Kong,” he said.
Allen Carlson, an associate professor at Cornell University, said it felt like a Chinese saying, “kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” In other words, Beijing punishes some high-profile individuals to be an example to everyone else. “The capture of Jimmy Lai and Agnes Chow is a good example of this design language coming into place,” Carlson said, adding that it “could have a cooling effect on Hong Kong society.”
Experts, activists and Hong Kongers feared exactly this. Apart from the fierce protesters and activists, supporters of the democratic movement can think twice about whether they will continue to make it public now that their families and their livelihoods are at stake. Activists and journalists have previously deleted posts on social media, mainly self-censoring themselves. The arrest of Lai and others is China’s way of saying, basically we are not moving.
Ong said that these high-profile arrests could mean “things can go in one of two directions: repression can slow down (because Beijing has successfully discouraged further strife), or it may decide to” tighten the screw “further.”
Whether that happens may have as much to do with what is happening in Hong Kong as what is happening in the rest of the world. This critically includes the status of US-China relations, which are at a dangerous low point.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor at the University of California Irvine and author of Vigil: Hong Kong at Brink, described blows to Hong Kong’s press freedoms and civil society as both “unusually fast and unusually slow.”
In Hong Kong, the pace has been staggering. But outside, these events happen a bit in part – arrest warrants for foreign activists a week and cancel the election to the Legislative Council a few days later and now these mass arrests.
“There has been a spread from the repressive movements,” Wasserstrom said. On the one hand, it is blow after blow, he said. But when it comes to international attention – especially in the Covid-19 age group – China’s outbreak looks a little more discreet rather than rapidly tightening controls.
Tensions between the United States and China are the background for all this
Lai’s arrest also came after the United States imposed sanctions on 11 officials involved in the democratic breakdown in Hong Kong, including Hong Kong’s CEO Carrie Lam and the territory’s police chief. This was a serious escalation, and although Chinese officials mocked the sanctions, they retaliated by imposing sanctions on US individuals, including some Republican lawmakers.
On Monday, US Secretary of Health Alex Azar visited Taiwan, the highest-ranking US official to visit since 1979. Although the visit was apparently about Taiwan’s success in dealing with coronavirus, such a trip is very provocative for Beijing, which wants to take Taiwan is back under its control and sees any recognition of it as a violation of its “one China” policy.
“I think both sides are on a kind of intention to poke the dragon and poke the eagle to see how far they can go – and also to strengthen the domestic certificate,” Carlson said. The Trump administration has blamed China for its handling of the coronavirus and is taking a hard-on-China strategy 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.
It leaves Hong Kong, much like Xinjiang, trapped in the midst of a great power struggle as the territories’ freedoms loosen. “Overall, it’s bad for the future,” Carlson said. “We are likely to see more arrests in Hong Kong, further breakdowns and no one shooting back – the United States is doing so, but not quite in a credible way.”
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