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While coronavirus wreaks havoc, Hong Kong arrests critics

Media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai during an interview in 2015.
Media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai during an interview in 2015. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, a prolific critic of Beijing, was arrested on Friday for taking part in last year's pro-democracy protests. The 72-year-old owner of the Apple Daily newspaper is accused of joining a banned rally on 31 August.

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Lai was charged along with veteran pro-democracy activists Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum.

The trio could be jailed for up to five years if convicted of taking part in an "unauthorised assembly". They are due to appear in court on 5 May.

Human rights groups have protested against the detentions. “These unjustifiable arrests are a shameless attempt to harass and silence those in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement,” writes Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, Man Kei Tam.

“The vast majority of people taking part in the 31 August protests were exercising their right to peaceful assembly. Peaceful protests do not require authorisation and are therefore not ‘unlawful,’ as the Hong Kong authorities claim," says Tam.

Refugee

Jimmy Lai, president of the One Media Group, came to China as a refugee from the famine caused on the mainland by the Great Leap Forward in 1961.

He started out as a worker in a garment factory, became a salesman, invested in his own company, founding the Giordano garment chain in 1981, expanding it to 191 outlets in 1992.

The 4 June 1989 Tiananmen crackdown by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on peaceful protesters changed his vision of the world, and he founded the provocative Apple Daily, a newspaper publishing articles which routinely drew the ire of Beijing because of their critical content.

Hong Kong handover

After the 1997 Hong Kong handover to China, the Apple Daily continued to champion democracy and human rights, and grew increasingly critical of the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government.

Lai actively took part in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, joining the protesters on several occasions. In 2014 police briefly arrested him when they were clearing Umbrella protesters off the streets of Hong Kong.

He was also suspected by Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption of having given sums of money to pro-democracy legislators Lee Cheuk-yan, Alan Leong, James To, Claudia Mo, and Tanya Chan, but after three years of investigations, charges were dropped.

Booksellers

The arrest of Lai and activists Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum comes days after the People’s Intermediate Court of Ningbo in China sentenced Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai to 10 years in prison for “illegally providing intelligence to foreign entities”.

Gui Minhai was one of five Hong Kong publishers and booksellers who disappeared in 2015 after printing and selling books critical of Beijing. In 2016, Gui went off the radar when he was on a trip to Thailand, to reappear in mainland China where he was under tight surveillance before being officially arrested in 2018.

Protest leader Joshua Wong was quick to point out that the arrests in Hong Kong “coincided with the fight against the coronavirus,” which attracted most of the territory’s press coverage, and also came “hours after the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee proposed a pay rise for civil servants”.

However, pro-democracy legislators voted to freeze police pay, arguing that the force did not deserve an increase "because of its handling of the anti-government protests”.

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