Hong Kong's Jimmy Lai charged with endangering national security

Media mogul Jimmy Lai heads to court after being charged under the national security law in Hong Kong on Dec 12, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong media tycoon and prominent pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai appeared in court on Saturday (Dec 12) and was charged with colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security.

Between July 1 and Dec 1 this year, Lai called on a foreign country, group or person to impose sanctions on, or engage in other hostile activities against, Hong Kong or China, prosecutors told the West Kowloon Magistracy.

The case was adjourned to April 16 for the investigation to continue and for evidence including, about 1,000 Twitter posts, to be reviewed.

The court appearance confirms local media reports on Friday that Lai faced charges under the new law, followed by a police statement that a man would appear in court on Saturday on allegations that he endangered national security. The statement didn't mention Lai by name, as per the force's standard practice.

In early December, Lai, the 73-year-old founder of Next Digital and owner of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, was denied bail on new charges relating to his dramatic August arrest under Hong Kong's controversial new security measures.

The formal charges under the national security law, which Beijing forced on the city in late June after bypassing the local legislature, could prompt further criticism from the United States and Britain, which have both criticised the measure as an erosion of Hong Kong's freedoms.

Chinese and Hong Kong officials have defended the law as necessary to restore stability to the Asian financial hub after it was rocked by sometimes-violent protests throughout 2019.

Shares of Next Digital climbed 18 per cent in afternoon trading after the reports Lai was to be charged. Hong Kong residents have piled into shares of the company to show support for Lai, including a more than 1,100 per cent surge in two days after his arrest in August that propelled the stock to a seven-year high.

In a statement released late on Friday, Next Digital said it sees no "immediate material adverse impact" on its operations from the absence of Lai.

International outcry

Lai is a prominent critic of Beijing and Hong Kong's authorities, while his Apple Daily newspaper has vigorously championed the city's protest movement. In an interview with Bloomberg TV in late May, he called on US President Donald Trump to hammer Hong Kong's economy to punish the authorities for their imposition of the national security law.

"Our only salvation is for President Donald Trump to impose sanctions," he said at the time, adding that the most impactful initial move would be to freeze the bank accounts of top Chinese officials.

"We are very hopeful that by the weekend he will impose very draconian sanctions on China."

His arrest and a dramatic police raid on the Apple Daily's newsroom in August prompted an outcry from foreign governments including the UK, which said the law was being used to crack down on press freedoms in the former British colony.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman James Slack said at the time that Lai's arrest was "further evidence that the national security law is being used as a pretext to silence opposition".

A group of western envoys wrote an open letter in November condemning the erosion of media freedoms in the Asian financial hub, a situation they said had been worsened by Beijing's imposition of the "vaguely defined" national security law.

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