Why did Hong Kong arrest media mogul Jimmy Lai?

Business & Technology

Hong Kong police arrested media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-Ying (黎智英 Lí Zhìyīng) this morning (Friday February 28). Lai made his fortune in the clothing business, but in 1990, he founded Next Digital, publisher of the Hong Kong and Taiwan tabloids Apple Daily (蘋果日報 píngguǒ rìbào), and the famous Taiwanese news animators now known as TomoNews.

Some may object to Lai’s tabloid productions — Apple Daily’s team of paparazzi rival the worst celebrity-trailing excesses of the Murdoch press. But Lai has also been one of the loudest supporters of democracy and free speech in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the mainland. This has come at a financial cost: many Hong Kong and Chinese companies have boycotted Lai’s media properties, refusing to advertise in them.

Now the Hong Kong government is looking to impose another cost on Lai: Early this morning, Lai and former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人 Lǐ Zhuōrén) and Yeung Sum (楊森 Yáng Sēn) were arrested on charges of taking part in an illegal assembly during the anti-government protests in Hong Kong on August 31 last year. Lai was also accused of “intimidating” a reporter at an event in 2017. The three were released on police bail at noon, after being detained at different police stations from around 7 a.m.

What is going on? I asked Mark Simon, Group Director of Lai’s Trust, which controls all of Jimmy Lai’s companies, including Next Digital:

Q&A with Mark Simon, Group Director of Lai’s Trust

Jimmy Lai’s arrest on trumped-up charges was perhaps inevitable after the appointment of the notorious cross toppling Xi Jinping associate Xià Bǎolóng 夏宝龙, as the head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Did Mr. Lai see this coming?

We have known since the appointment of Xia a tougher line was coming as the CCP folks don’t do much to hide their intent. On his “listening tour” through HK and Macau it was passed on that Xia did more talking than listening, with the message being order is what mattered.

I read this as a move to intimidate Hongkongers: a classic case of killing the rooster to frighten the monkey. Does that explanation make sense?

Yes, that’s a pretty good summary of what they were probably thinking, and part of it being the new boss announcing his presence. The 8/31 charge gambit makes sense as well, and that he is confronting the most sensitive subject he could find in the demonstrations. Yet, in targeting 8/31, we need to dispense with any idea that this government is not looking for a fight.

Why now? Do you have any idea why they would go after him at this time?

Just me, but I don’t think that Beijing or Mr. Xia cares one bit about the recovery of Hong Kong, and so basically he moved as quickly as he could, whether the coronavirus was solved or not. Tells Hong Kong people exactly where they stand in the eyes of Beijing. I don’t know why that surprises folks, but I think we’re starting to see the Beijing the rest of China deals with on a regular basis.

Are you anticipating further legal actions against Mr. Lai or Next Digital’s Hong Kong media properties?

You never know, but there’s really nothing on the horizon unless they start going back and picking out each individual demonstration.

Do you think this move might backfire in Hong Kong? Might persecution of Mr. Lai bring people back to the streets?

My sense, and it’s just me, is it most of the people who are contacting me about this are more annoyed than outraged. There was no reason to do it now and as I said earlier it just drives home the point that Beijing is really not concerned about Hong Kong rather it’s all about the control of Hong Kong.

This could’ve been the time that the town quiets down a little bit and maybe move forward. Beijing just said they’re having none of that with the move against these three activists.

Can you see a day when Next Digital has to exit Hong Kong?

I don’t think we will ever exit. What’s the point of fighting for all this time and then walking away. Real question is will they shut us down, but I just don’t know.

Are you personally being harassed or under any kind of pressure from the Hong Kong authorities or Fujianese gangsters?

I get followed every couple of weeks. They don’t sneak around, they wait for me at the bottom my building. So it’s just harassment. Overall I don’t worry about my personal safety.