Hong Kong media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai was denied bail on Dec. 3 on a charge of fraud related to the lease of a building that houses his Apple Daily, an pro-democracy newspaper.
Authorities have intensified a crackdown on key opposition figures in the Chinese-ruled city since Beijing circumvented the local legislature and imposed sweeping national security legislation on the global financial centre on June 30.
While Lai’s fraud charge did not fall under the national security law, it marks the latest crackdown on pro-democracy figures in the former British colony, which was handed back to Beijing in 1997 with a promise to maintain the free-wheeling city’s way of life for 50 years.
Critics say the law crushes freedoms in the global financial centre, while supporters say it will bring stability after prolonged anti-China, pro-democracy protests last year.
Lai’s denial of bail follows democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam being jailed Dec. 2 for their roles in a pro-democracy rally in 2019. Chow, like Lai, is a Catholic.
Lai, 73, and two senior executives of his company Next Digital, were charged on Dec. 3 on suspicion of concealing from and falsely representing the use of their office to their landlord, a public corporation set up by the Hong Kong government.
The charge stated they were not using the office space as permitted under the lease between 2016 to 2020, and had sub-let a part of the premises, resulting in benefits to Apple Daily.
Reuters was not immediately able to reach Lai or his lawyers for comment. Next Digital suspended trading on Dec. 3 morning, pending an announcement containing “inside information”.
“This is about dirtying Jimmy up. It’s Beijing’s policing brought to Hong Kong,” Mark Simon, an associate of Lai, told Reuters.
An ardent critic of Beijing, Lai has been detained since Dec. 2 after reporting to the police for his arrest in August. Prosecutors applied to adjourn the case until April next year, according to local media.
Rights groups and critics of Beijing have been swift to condemn what has occurred this week.
Elaine Pearson, from Human Rights Watch, said it was more nails in the coffin for Hong Kong’s democracy.
“First, Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow were sentenced to jail for involvement in protests,” Pearson said. “Now Jimmy Lai is denied bail, charged with fraud “relating to the illegal use of his company’s premises,” she said.
David Alton, a member of the UK’s House of Lords said that what was straight out of the playbooks of Stalin and Mao: detentions, arrests, intimidation, threats, kangaroo courts.
“Locking up campaigners and detaining Jimmy Lai won’t stop people believing in democracy in Hong Kong but unmasks the jailers for what they are,” Alton said.
Lai was born to a rich family in mainland China in 1947. His family suffered once the communists took power in 1949, with his mother being sent to a labor camp. At the age of 12 he was smuggled into Hong Kong. Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, baptized him in 1997.
Lai has been a supporter of Cardinal Zen who is a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party and a controversial Sino-Vatican deal on bishop appointments on the mainland.
At the end of last month, Lai told Hong Kong Watch’s Benedict Rogers that the Vatican has not stood up for Hong Kong and can’t be relied on.
“The Vatican haven’t said anything about Hong Kong,” Lia said while adding that the Hong Kong Church is under pressure. “The Church is being subdued,” he said.
Police swoop on offices
In August, Lai was arrested after about 200 police officers swooped on his offices. Hong Kong police later said they had arrested nine men and one woman for suspected offences including “collusion with a foreign country/external elements to endanger national security, conspiracy to defraud” and others.
Suspicion of colluding with foreign forces carries a maximum sentence of life in jail under the new security law.
Lai has been a frequent visitor to Washington, where he has met officials, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor”.
The security law was introduced on June 30 and punishes anything China considers subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Watch Lai’s interview with Rogers below.