HONG KONG — The Hong Kong police on Monday arrested seven people, including Jimmy Lai, the media tycoon and critic of the Chinese Communist Party, on charges of violating the territory’s new national security law.
Mr. Lai’s arrest makes him the most high-profile target of the sweeping legislation imposed by Beijing. It also highlighted concerns that the new security law would be used to silence critical voices and curb the city’s freewheeling press as part of a broader move against democracy advocates.
Mr. Lai’s company, Next Digital, publishes Apple Daily, a fiercely pro-democracy newspaper that regularly takes on the Hong Kong government and the Chinese leadership. He is often denounced by Chinese officials, pro-Beijing news outlets in Hong Kong and China’s state-run news media.
The newspaper livestreamed video footage of more than 100 police officers turning up in force and raiding Next Digital’s headquarters on Monday morning. Officers were seen rifling through papers on journalists’ desks as Mr. Lai and the company’s chief executive, Cheung Kim-hung, were led through the offices in handcuffs. Officers cordoned off Mr. Lai’s office and several reporters’ cubicles for searches, photos shared on social media showed.
Apple Daily reported that Mr. Lai, 72, was being investigated on charges of collusion with a foreign country or external elements. Mark Simon, a senior executive with Next Digital, said that Mr. Lai’s two sons had also been arrested. They were being investigated for violations of the company business code. He noted that Mr. Lai’s sons were not affiliated with Apple Daily, which suggests that the authorities were investigating Mr. Lai’s private investments. A number of senior Next Digital employees were also being questioned at their homes, Mr. Simon said.
When a reporter asked Mr. Lai about the arrest and the raid, he replied, “How should I think about it?”
Radio Television Hong Kong, a government-funded broadcaster that has drawn fire for its aggressive coverage of the police, said on Monday that its reporters had been temporarily blocked from a police briefing at the scene. RTHK said it had been told by the authorities that news outlets that had obstructed the police in the past were not allowed to attend. The information could not be independently verified. Much of the area surrounding Apple Daily’s headquarters were cordoned off and journalist access restricted.
The police said in a statement on Facebook that officers had entered a building in Tseung Kwan O, the location of Apple Daily’s headquarters, with a search warrant in order to investigate national security offenses. An Apple Daily reporter said that police officers had loaded bags of documents taken from the building onto a truck.
Livestream footage also showed plainclothes officers at a different location, a restaurant in the Central district owned by one of Mr. Lai’s sons. They removed a crate filled with electronic seized devices and loaded the crate into a private vehicle. They did not respond when reporters asked whether they were national security officers and whether they had search warrants.
The new security law has left Hong Kong residents scrambling to erase their digital footprints of messages that previously expressed support for democracy in the territory. Stores and other businesses also pulled down posters backing the democracy movement.
Last month, Hong Kong barred 12 pro-democracy candidates like Joshua Wong from an upcoming legislative election and postponed the election by a year, citing the coronavirus pandemic. Many in the opposition camp said the move was most likely made to prevent a defeat of pro-Beijing candidates.
The crackdown in Hong Kong has spurred other governments to take action: Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand have suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong, citing concerns around the new security law. China has retaliated in kind.
Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the United States said in a joint statement on Sunday that they were “gravely concerned by the Hong Kong government’s unjust disqualification of candidates” and by the security law, which was “eroding the Hong Kong people’s fundamental rights and liberties.”
On Friday, the Trump administration sanctioned Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, and 10 other senior officials over their roles in suppressing dissent.
Mr. Lai was previously arrested in February and accused of participating in an unauthorized protest last year. He faces charges for joining an unauthorized vigil on June 4 to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown by Beijing.
The police have also arrested about 15 people under the security law, including several who participated in protests and four activists accused of posting messages online. One person, a man who collided with the police while riding a motorcycle with a flag that read, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” was charged with inciting secession and terrorism.
It was not immediately clear exactly what specific action by Mr. Lai led to his arrest.
He traveled to Washington last year and met with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, among others. The national security law stipulates, however, that it can be applied only to activities that occur after it went into force, at the end of June.
Mr. Lai previously said he believed the new law would be used against him.
“I have always thought I might one day be sent to jail for my publications or for my calls for democracy in Hong Kong,” he wrote in an Op-Ed article for The New York Times. “But for a few tweets, and because they are said to threaten the national security of mighty China? That’s a new one, even for me.”