HONG KONG— Jimmy Lai, the publisher of a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, has been charged with foreign collusion, making him the highest-profile figure charged under a new security law imposed by China to crush dissent in the city.
Hong Kong police said Friday that the 73-year-old was charged after an investigation by its National Security Department, a branch set up under the new security law. The charge of collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The police didn’t give further details, but a story in Mr. Lai’s newspaper, Apple Daily, said the charge was “reportedly based on Lai’s acceptance of interviews and calls for sanctions from foreign governments.”
Enforcement actions against pro-democracy figures have been accelerating in Hong Kong. In recent weeks, authorities expelled opposition lawmakers from the legislature and jailed prominent activists including Joshua Wong on crimes related to the mass protests that rocked Hong Kong last year.
On Monday, Hong Kong police arrested eight men related to a peaceful protest at a university this year, three of them on suspicion of national security crimes. On Tuesday, police arrested seven pro-democracy activists, including a former lawmaker, related to participation in a protest on July 1, the day after the national security law was imposed.
Mr. Lai, a well-known figure in Hong Kong, is an entrepreneur who built a successful clothing brand after starting out as a child laborer in the city’s factories. He was spurred to pro-democracy activism by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and eventually founded brash publications such as Apple Daily that openly criticized China’s Communist Party and pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong.
Mr. Lai was arrested in August along with nine others in a daylong sweep. Arrested at his home, he was informed he was under suspicion of breaching the new national security law and later paraded through the Apple Daily newsroom. Mr. Lai was released on bail but was jailed this month when a court denied him bail on a separate fraud charge.
China imposed the national security law just before midnight on June 30 to stamp out last year’s wave of pro-democracy demonstrations. Hours earlier, Mr. Lai predicted in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that it would mark the death knell for the “one country, two systems” arrangement that had allowed Hong Kong to largely govern itself since the then-British colony was returned to China in 1997.
The law allows China’s secret police to operate in Hong Kong and gives mainland authorities broad latitude to enforce crimes such as foreign collusion, secession and sedition. The new powers include the ability to remove cases from local courts and prosecute them in mainland China’s opaque legal system.
Last year, Mr. Lai was part of a full-court press of Hong Kong pro-democracy figures encouraging the U.S. to pass laws imposing sanctions if Beijing eroded Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status. Mr. Lai’s meetings with Vice President Mike Pence and other top U.S. officials outraged Beijing. The security law explicitly made seeking sanctions from foreign governments a crime.
After the law was introduced and even while out on bail, Mr. Lai continued to speak out about what he saw as threats against Hong Kong’s way of life, rooted in Western-style rule of law, vowing not to be intimidated. It included giving a regular video interview that was livestreamed on Twitter.
Mr. Lai will appear in court Saturday.
Write to John Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org
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