Hong Kong’s crackdown on dissent has escalated, with national security charges laid against media mogul Jimmy Lai, and a guilty verdict for teenage activist Tony Chung for defiling China’s flag.
On Friday afternoon local media reported Lai, 73, was charged with foreign collusion offences and endangering national security under the draconian national security law (NSL) imposed by Beijing in June. Lai, who was denied bail over separate matters last week and jailed on remand, will appear in court on the NSL charges on Saturday.
The owner of Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily and founder of Next Digital Media, Lai has been one of the loudest pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong and among the few business leaders in the financial hub willing to criticise Beijing. He has made frequent visits to the US and called for international action, prompting Chinese authorities to label him a “traitor”.
It comes amid a worsening crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Earlier this week police arrested at least 16 activists, including students involved in a peaceful campus demonstration, three of whom were suspected of violating the national security law.
Police also ordered the freezing of accounts belonging to a former pro-democracy legislator and his family, a church pastor and his wife, and their church charity which had offered humanitarian assistance to protesters.
Last week, activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam were jailed for between seven and 13 months for their roles in an unauthorised protest outside police headquarters last year.
Lai was first arrested under the NSL in August, as part of a police sweep on 10 individuals and a raid of the Apple Daily newsroom. He is facing multiple other separate cases, and was last week charged with fraud alongside two Next Digital executives. The trio were accused of breaching land-lease terms by misusing Next Digital’s office space in Tseung Kwan O for other purposes. Lai was denied bail and detained ahead of the next court hearing in April next year.
Also on Friday, 19-year-old activist Tony Chung was found guilty of unlawful assembly and defiling the Chinese flag, after he was filmed throwing the flag to the ground during scuffles outside Hong Kong’s parliament last year. He faces up to three years in jail for the flag conviction and up to five for unlawful assembly. He will be sentenced on 29 December.
The presiding magistrate, Peony Wong, said Chung’s actions were without question “defiling the national flag in an open manner”. “The defendant walked back and jumped to throw the flag which made more people able to see what he did,” Wong said.
Chung had denied the charge, arguing that he did not realise it was a Chinese flag. “Hongkongers hang in there,” Chung shouted to supporters in court.
Chung is also facing multiple other charges, including for alleged secessionist activities under the NSL, which carry a maximum penalty of life in jail.
The former convenor of a student activism group, Chung was the first political person to be arrested under the law, when he and three other youths were detained for allegedly advocating online for an independent Hong Kong.
Chung was arrested under the NSL again in October after attempting to reach the US consulate in Hong Kong to take shelter. Police intercepted Chung at a nearby coffee shop as he waited for the consulate to open.
While the US, UK and other nations have launched sanctions and other measures in response to the growing crackdown on dissent, Hong Kong and Beijing authorities appear to have only escalated their efforts.
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has remained unapologetic, praising the NSL for restoring law and order to the city and rejecting all suggestions the crackdown has damaged its reputation as an international business hub and beacon of freedom in China.
Additional reporting by AFP