Jimmy Lai, the prominent Hong Kong media mogul and democracy activist, has been charged with endangering national security by colluding with a foreign country. The charge handed down Friday makes Lai, publisher of the China-skeptic Apple Daily tabloid, the most prominent individual yet charged under a controversial law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong earlier this year.
The charge represents the gravest legal danger yet for Lai, who has become a frequent target of the Hong Kong government and its Communist Party backers in Beijing.
The founder of Next Digital was also arrested last April for allegedly organizing illegal protests against Beijing's encroachment on Hong Kong. Lai was arrested again with several other individuals — including both his sons — in August, this time under suspicion of violating the national security law. Lai did not face a formal charge at that time and was soon released on bail.
This time, though, he has little hope of such a quick release.
Lai was taken into custody again earlier this month, along with several senior colleagues at Next Digital, for allegedly violating the terms of their office building's lease. And a judge, deeming Lai a flight risk, denied him bail and all but ensured that one of Hong Kong's wealthiest men will be behind bars at least until next April.
Lai, 73, is expected to appear in court Saturday. The outspoken critic of Beijing faces the prospect of extradition to China and life in prison under the sweeping national security law the country imposed last summer.
He is hardly the only one in severe legal jeopardy, though.
The law that Beijing passed in late June, over strong international objection and massive protests in Hong Kong, broadly criminalized four activities — secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers — and set up a national security office in Hong Kong not subject to local jurisdiction. Critics have called the law a flagrant power grab that shreds the semi-autonomy the former British colony has enjoyed since its return to Chinese control in 1997.
Indeed, since the law's passage, Hong Kong's government has embarked on a widespread effort to crack down on dissent and rein in the pro-democracy demonstrations that have roiled the city for years. While just a handful of people have been formally charged under the law, among whom Lai is the most prominent so far, hundreds of activists — including some of the most visible leaders of the protests — have been arrested for their activities in the region since mid-summer.