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Explained: Who is Jimmy Lai, and why does his arrest in Hong Kong matter?

On Monday, one of the most high-profile enforcement of this law came with the arrest of business tycoon Jimmy Lai. Here’s a low-down on everything you need to know about why Lai’s case is important.

Media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, founder of Apple Daily is detained by the national security unit in Hong Kong, China August 10, 2020. (Reuters Photo)

In the tumultuous weeks following the imposition of the controversial security law in Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists and supporters were forced to flee the country and protesters have faced violence and arrest from Hong Kong police forces. On Monday, one of the most high-profile enforcement of this law came with the arrest of business tycoon Jimmy Lai. Here’s a low-down on everything you need to know about why Lai’s case is important.

Who is Jimmy Lai?

Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, 71, was arrested on Monday and the office of his newspaper Apple Daily was raided by police. Since protests against Hong Kong’s national security law began last year, Lai has prominently supported the pro-democracy movement. Hong Kong police said Lai had been charged with “violating the territory’s new national security law.”

Lai is a citizen of the United Kingdom but was born in Guangzhou, China. According to a BBC profile, at age 12, Lai fled his village in mainland China, and reached Hong Kong as a stowaway on a fishing boat. He worked his way up from working in a Hong Kong sweatshop to starting a multi-million dollar empire in a span of a few decades, becoming one of Hong Kong’s richest residents. However, Lai has also been a consistent supporter of democracy and a critic of the Chinese government and its meddling in Hong Kong.

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According to the BBC profile, Beijing’s crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square deeply influenced and shaped Lai’s political views. His open criticism of China’s policies, censorship, repression of the freedom of speech and the Tiananmen massacre in his writings in newspapers was a constant source of consternation for Beijing.


Beijing’s censorship of his bookstores in China led to Lai establishing Apple Daily and a digital magazine called Next, both of which are pro-democracy publications in Hong Kong. Already branded as a troublemaker by Beijing, Lai’s meeting last year with US Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had further angered China. Pro-China individuals and Beijing have consistently accused Lai of being a “traitor”, a message that China’s propaganda outlets have emphasised.

According to China’s Global Times, two of Lai’s sons and two senior executives of Next Digital have also been arrested by Hong Kong police.

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Why were Lai’s newspaper offices raided?

Lai’s newspaper offices in Hong Kong have faced several attacks over the past few years, including incidents where masked attackers threw firebombs at the office complex. On Monday morning, hundreds of police officers were seen entering the office of Apple Daily and conducting a raid.

Lai himself was escorted out of the building wearing handcuffs. This past year, Lai was arrested twice by Hong Kong police on charges of illegal assembly for joining pro-democracy protesters. After the new national security law was enforced in Hong Kong, Lai and his newspapers had bitterly criticised the move, saying it was a “death knell” in an interview with the BBC in June.

Critics say that this latest move by Hong Kong’s establishment is dangerous for the state of press freedom in Hong Kong and perhaps a sign of things to come, exactly what pro-democracy activists had been fearing.

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Why is Lai’s arrest concerning?

It isn’t just the state of press freedom in Hong Kong that is concerning for observers. When the national security law came into effect on June 30, critics were particularly concerned about a clause that said “the law will also apply to non-permanent residents and people “from outside (Hong Kong)… who are not permanent residents of Hong Kong”.

Under the clauses of this law, an individuals’ foreign citizenship is not going to protect them from Beijing’s long arm serving to crack down on anyone it deems a threat to its own geopolitical goals, and this became clear in the case of Lai.

After news of Lai’s arrest broke, Nigel Adams at UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: “Media freedom must be upheld. More evidence the National security law being used as pretext to silence opposition.”

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