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Catholic philanthropist Jimmy Lai arrested in Hong Kong

Arrest of media tycoon under new security law is ominous for press freedom in the city
Catholic philanthropist Jimmy Lai arrested in Hong Kong

Millionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai, 72, poses during an interview with AFP at the Next Digital offices in Hong Kong last month. Lai was arrested on Aug. 10 under Beijing's new national security law. (Photo: AFP)

Published: August 10, 2020 10:45 AM GMT

One of Hong Kong’s leading Catholic philanthropists, media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, has been arrested along with members of his family and company management as Beijing continues its swift implementation of the brutal new national security law (NSL).

Lai, 72, has donated millions of dollars to Catholic causes and has been retired Cardinal Joseph Zen’s biggest financial backer.

This has raised fears in some quarters that the prelate, who like Lai is a trenchant critic of Beijing, could be in the sights of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) along with other church leaders.

Cardinal Zen has previously revealed that what began as a HK$3 million (US$387,000) birthday present turned into donations of about USS$20 million — one third of all donations that Lai made to various causes, many of them associated with the pro-democracy movement, according to the South China Morning Post.

The cardinal has explained that the money has been spent on a wide range of things including the so-called underground church loyal to Rome but not part of the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, sending Chinese priests to Rome and even funding Zen’s own trips to Rome.

Lai, who made his fortune through mid-market fashion chain Giordano before parlaying his wealth into media companies Next Media and the city’s leading anti-Beijing newspaper Apple Daily, has long been one of Being’s key targets in the city.

About 200 police raided the office of Apple Daily and handcuffed Lai under the NSL provision of “foreign collusion” along with two of his sons and two executives of Next Media. He was also charged with fraud. The NSL means Lai could be sent to the mainland for incarceration and trial.

“The police operation is still ongoing and does not rule out more arrests,” Hong Kong police said.

In interviews after the NSL was imposed, Lai described the new legislation as “the death knell for Hong Kong.”

"I'm prepared for prison. If it comes, I will have the opportunity to read books I haven't read. The only thing I can do is to be positive, " he told news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).

He has has been the victim of violent attacks in recent years by Beijing-sponsored thugs. In February, Lai was arrested along with other pro-democracy advocates for a largely peaceful protest in August 2019 but the charges were later dropped.

Observers said the arrest of Lai is a clear message from Beijing that no one  is safe from the long and brutal reach of Chinese authorities.

The NSL has criminalized comments deemed to be seditious, separatist or broadly critical of the government.

Cardinal Zen, Bishop Joseph Ha and senior representatives of the Diocese of Hong’s Kong Peace and Justice Commission have made numerous statements supporting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and have been prominent in attending street protests against the Hong Kong government and Beijing.

Lai, who also holds United Kingdom citizenship, is the second target picked up by the newly created Office For Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong, set up to implement the NSL and answerable to Beijing. Four young student activists were arrested last month.

Beijing has also “postponed’ elections for the city’s quasi-democratic Legislative Council, due in September, by a year, citing concerns over the spread of coronavirus even though South Korea and Singapore have successfully held safe polls this year.

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