As It Happens·Q&A

Raid on Hong Kong newsroom, arrest of Jimmy Lai and others 'very sad development'

Hong Kong police on Monday stormed into the building of media company Next Digital, questioned reporters, rifled through their belongings, and left with more than 25 boxes of documents. Company founder Jimmy Lai was arrested and charged collusion with a foreign country and conspiracy to defraud.

Media company founder and pro-democracy advocate charged with collusion with a foreign country

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, centre, who founded the local newspaper Apple Daily, is escorted by police Monday. Lai was arrested on suspicion of collusion with foreign powers, his aide said, in the highest-profile use yet of the new national security law Beijing imposed on the city after protests last year. (Associated Press)

Read Story Transcript

On Monday morning, police officers in Hong Kong stormed into the building of media company Next Digital. They questioned reporters, rifled through their belongings, and left with more than two dozen boxes of documents.

Staffers at Next Digital and its pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper say they'd been expecting some kind of crackdown. But that didn't make today's raid — and the arrest of company founder Jimmy Lai — any less jarring.

Lai's arrest is the highest profile yet under Hong Kong's controversial new national security law, which came into effect in late June.

This is the first time the law has been used against members of the media, stoking fears that authorities are suppressing press freedom.

Lai, 71, is an outspoken pro-democracy figure who regularly criticizes China's authoritarian rule and Hong Kong's government. His aide said Lai was charged with collusion with foreign powers and conspiracy to defraud.

Chris Yeung, chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said Lai's arrest is a frightening attack on press freedom. Here's part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

Chris, tell me about today's police operation. We're talking about what, hundreds of police officers involved, right?

Yes, probably more than 200. It's unprecedented. I think we had never seen such a massive police raid at a media organization in Hong Kong for many decades.

I myself have never seen such, and it is horrifying, I think, to a lot of journalists, having seen police officers around every corner of a newsroom, of a news building [was] really, really scary.

Jimmy Lai and a number of others were arrested. What do we know about the other individuals who were detained today? 

Most of them are senior executives in the board of a mixed media group. They probably face charges [under] national security law and probably a fraud case.

The details are unclear at this moment, but of course, the main thing will be the security law, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, if convicted. And in their case, at least 10 years in jail, if convicted of a less serious crime.

Pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai is a prominent critic of China accused of collaborating with foreigners. His arrest is the highest-profile yet under the new security laws. 3:46

It's a really heavy, draconian law in Hong Kong. It just happened about an hour ago that police arrested a student leader, Agnes Chow, on suspected breach of national security law.

So it seems that now, about one and a half months after the security law took effect, they have kind of intensified the enforcement. And perhaps, more cases of arrests followed by prosecution will follow. 

We heard reports that police were rifling through reporter's belongings [and] took out dozens of boxes of evidence. Do you have a sense of what they were looking for?

Well, apparently, it's all related to the cases of the executives and of course, Jimmy Lai.... Apple Daily have not yet disclosed what information and materials the police have collected.

The operations [were] conducted in a pretty high-profile way … so some politics are in it. But of course, their real intention is to put Jimmy Lai into jail. 

Jimmy Lai has made no secret of his criticisms of the Communist Party. He's been arrested many times in the past. With this new law in place, what makes his arrest so different this time?

The law, I think, will become pretty powerful as a political tool to send him to jail, because the one major crime he will be facing is collusion with foreign forces, which is ill-defined and could be politically manipulated to cook up a case.

And then we don't know whether the case will be even held a local court, because under the law, the mainland authorities … decide whether that case should be handled in mainland courts or Hong Kong courts.

But even in Hong Kong courts, the protection to defendants is highly questionable because the law is being written in the way that is — well, you get [into] serious trouble, if you face charges of those crimes.

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai has already taken huge risks by having his newspaper openly criticize Beijing, including the new national security law, and he’s been arrested for organizing pro-democracy protests. He tells National co-host Adrienne Arsenault that Hong Kong as it's known to its people and the world is in danger of disappearing. 5:50

What do we know at this point about what this raid really means for his media company? Next Digital, the Apple Daily newspaper — are they going to be able to continue publishing? 

In the short run, of course, they have a lot of support in this society.… Some even said that they are going to buy the newspaper tomorrow, even if [it] carries nothing but just white paper. 

But that may be [in the] short run. It probably won't take long for the newspapers to face hard times, for instance, stabilizing their staff sentiments, giving promises on how they are going to carry on their work without facing threats to the personal safety of the journalists.

And also … advertisers fear offending China, so [they] avoid putting ads in the newspaper. So they can only survive on street sales, and also supporters.

The change that we're seeing has come so quickly. Over the summer, we've seen a bunch of arrests. We've seen pro-democracy candidates that were disqualified from elections. Pro-democracy scholars fired from their jobs. The upcoming election's been delayed by a year. And now all of this.

When you sort of pile all those things together, what do you now expect to happen? What's coming next?

Exactly. Because of the string of events that you have you have mentioned, I think a lot of people here in Hong Kong now just don't have high expectations that life will return to normal and calm in the near run.

We're going to face a lot of unknowns, uncertainties, surprises and pretty ugly scenes like what we see now today in the newsroom.

You're a veteran journalist yourself. What has it been like for you to witness today's events in Hong Kong? 

Pretty sad, pretty sad. I think people here, our older generations, they built up a very successful Hong Kong from nothing. But it seems that within months we are doing a lot of self-destruction of what we have done in the past decades through the hard work and diligence and enterprising spirit of our older generations.

It's a very sad development for Hong Kong. 

Written by Brandie Weikle and Chloe Shantz-Hilkes, with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.