Hong Kong’s Lai Charged With Endangering National Security
Jimmy Lai, chairman of Next Digital Ltd., walks towards a Correctional Services Department vehicle in Hong Kong, China. (Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

Hong Kong’s Lai Charged With Endangering National Security

Hong Kong media tycoon and prominent pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai was charged with colluding with foreign forces under the city’s sweeping new national security law and denied bail in a court appearance on Saturday.

Prosecutors told the West Kowloon Magistracy that Lai committed the offense -- calling for a foreign entity to impose sanctions or engage in hostile activities against Hong Kong or China-- between July 1 and Dec. 1 this year.

The case was adjourned to April 16 for the investigation to continue and for evidence, including about 1,000 Twitter posts, to be reviewed.

“It will be based on who he spoke with on Twitter and in interviews -- it basically looks like it’s all based on open press interviews,” said Mark Simon, Lai’s long-time personal assistant. “It would be more confidence boosting of the Hong Kong legal system if they had more to present than what was shown today.”

Hong Kong’s Lai Charged With Endangering National Security

In early December, Lai, the 73-year-old founder of Next Digital Ltd. and owner of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, was denied bail on new charges relating to his dramatic August arrest under Hong Kong’s controversial new security measures.

The formal charges under the national security law, which Beijing forced on the city in late June after bypassing the local legislature, could prompt further criticism from the U.S. and the U.K., which both said the measure was an erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. Chinese and Hong Kong officials have defended the law as necessary to restore stability to the Asian financial hub after it was rocked by sometimes-violent protests throughout 2019.

Shares of Next Digital climbed as much as 18% on Friday after the reports Lai was to be charged. Hong Kong residents have piled into shares of the company to show support for Lai, including a more than 1,100% surge in two days after his arrest in August that propelled the stock to a seven-year high.

In a statement released late on Friday, Next Digital said it sees no “immediate material adverse impact” on its operations from the absence of Lai.

International Outcry

Lai is a prominent critic of Beijing and Hong Kong’s authorities, while his Apple Daily newspaper has vigorously championed the city’s protest movement. In an interview with Bloomberg TV in late May, he called on U.S. President Donald Trump to hammer Hong Kong’s economy to punish authorities for their imposition of the national security law.

“Our only salvation is for President Donald Trump to impose sanctions,” he said at the time, adding that the most impactful initial move would be to freeze the bank accounts of top Chinese officials. “We are very hopeful that by the weekend he will impose very draconian sanctions on China.”

Hong Kong’s Lai Charged With Endangering National Security

His arrest and a dramatic police raid on the Apple Daily newsroom in August prompted an outcry from foreign governments including the U.K., which said the law was being used to crack down on press freedoms in the former British colony.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said at the time that Lai’s arrest was “further evidence that the national security law is being used as a pretext to silence opposition.”

A group of western envoys wrote an open letter in November condemning the erosion of media freedoms in the Asian financial hub, a situation they said had been worsened by Beijing’s imposition of the “vaguely defined” national security law.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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