Pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper halts shares after asset freeze

Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai's assets were frozen on May 15, 2021.
Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai's assets were frozen on May 15, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong's largest pro-democracy media group announced that it was halting share trading on Monday (May 17), two days after the authorities froze the assets of its jailed owner Jimmy Lai under a new national security law.

Next Digital - which publishes the Apple Daily newspaper - said it would halt trading "pending the release of an announcement" about Lai's frozen assets, in a statement to the city's stock exchange.

On Friday (May 14), the Hong Kong Security Bureau announced it was freezing Lai's shares in Next Digital as well as the contents of three of his bank accounts, using the security law which Beijing imposed on the city last year.

It marks the first time the authorities have wielded the law to freeze the shares of a listed company's major shareholder - a step that could cause further jitters for investor sentiment in the business hub.

A rags-to-riches billionaire, media tycoon Lai, 73, has long been a thorn in Beijing's side thanks to his caustic tabloids and unapologetic support for democracy.

Apple Daily, the city's most popular tabloid, has staunchly backed Hong Kong's pro-democracy cause, including the huge and often violent protests that swept the international financial hub in 2019.

The Chinese authorities have made no secret of their desire to see Apple Daily shut down and Lai silenced.

Hong Kong police chief Chris Tang has also accused Apple Daily of publishing "fake news".

Apple Daily responded to the asset freeze with defiance over the weekend, vowing to continue publishing and saying that the company's own bank accounts were not affected.

However it said the company would probably only survive another nine or 10 months without Lai's cash, which he has used to prop the group up.

The asset freeze comes as the Chinese authorities roll out a relentless and successful campaign to silence dissent in Hong Kong.

Lai faces a raft of prosecutions.

Last month he was convicted and jailed for taking part in the 2019 protests.

He is due in court later on Monday on another prosecution linked to those protests alongside fellow activists.

He was also detained under the security law last year and charged with "colluding with foreign forces" for allegedly advocating foreign sanctions against Hong Kong and China's leaders.

More than 100 people - including some of the city's most prominent democracy activists - have been arrested under the law.

Most of those charged are refused bail and those who are convicted face up to life in jail.