Hong Kong Tycoon Lai Arrested in Fresh Crackdown on Activists

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong media tycoon and a prominent democracy advocate Jimmy Lai, who has long denounced as a traitor by Chinese state media, was among activists swept up in a fresh wave of arrests in the Asian financial hub.

Lai, 72, was arrested Friday on suspicion of participating in an unlawful assembly last year and intimidating a reporter in 2017, Hong Kong Superintendent Wong Tung-kwong said. He was given police bail and TV footage showed him leaving the police station shortly after the briefing. He didn’t answer questions from reporters as he approached his vehicle.

Hong Kong Tycoon Lai Arrested in Fresh Crackdown on Activists

The move follows years of criticism against Lai in Chinese state media, which has often listed him among a “Gang of Four” democracy advocates fomenting unrest in the former British colony. While the media network Lai founded, Next Digital Ltd. and its Apple Daily newspaper, backs the protests, it’s been years since he was seen as playing a central role in the city’s democracy movement.

Still, elder Hong Kong democracy advocates like Lai are often sought out by American diplomats, officials and journalists for insights into the city’s politics. The Global Times, a nationalist newspaper under China’s Communist Party, cited Lai’s meeting with U.S. officials including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in an editorial Friday praising his arrest.

“Many believed Lai is the ‘chief traitor’ who has brought chaos to the country and disorder to Hong Kong,” the paper said.

The arrests come amid a lull in protest activity following more than six months of nearly non-stop demonstrations and as Hong Kong battles the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus. Earlier this year, Beijing also appointed new hard-line officials to lead the agencies that oversee the city, including the Liaison Office.

Next Digital Group Director Mark Simon said by phone that Lai’s arrest probably stemmed from the Liaison Office’s desire to show it was taking action. “This is ridiculous,” Simon said. Next Digital’s shares fell 1.3% on Friday.

The Hong Kong police have been going through footage and trying to track down around protesters and other suspects. Two former pro-democracy lawmakers and activists, Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, were also arrested Friday.

Earlier this month, China tapped Xia Baolong, an official best known for carrying out a campaign to remove crosses from churches in Zhejiang province, as director of the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office. In January, Beijing had appointed Luo Huining -- a cadre known for executing President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign -- as head of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong.

On Aug. 31, the day Lai was accused of participating in an unlawful assembly, tens and thousands of people took to the streets in central Hong Kong to protest China’s refusal to allow a direct vote for the city’s leader. Demonstrators turned out despite a police ban and the arrests of several high-profile pro-democracy activists and lawmakers.

Hong Kong saw one of the most tense and violent clashes that weekend, featuring roadblocks set on fire outside the police headquarters in Wan Chai. The city descended into further chaos as riot police stormed into Prince Edward station in Kowloon to make arrests inside subway trains.

The allegation of intimidating a reporter stemmed from a 2017 exchange with a journalist from the Oriental Daily newspaper. The outlet had long sought to have Lai prosecuted over the 2017 incident, Simon said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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