Hong Kong media baron Jimmy Lai is the most prominent citizen to be arrested under the island’s new national security law, which criminalises actions that Beijing reads as subversive, secessionist, or smacking of collusion with foreign powers. As the most visible backer of the pro-democracy movement, Lai ticks all the boxes. In Washington, he even met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to lobby for support for the movement.
Lai is a study in the unexpected. He took issue with authoritarian government under the influence of Friedrich Hayek, but his weapons of choice are lively tabloids like Apple Daily, which was raided when he was arrested. The newspaper, part of a large stable of publications, which Lai had positioned as a champion of aggressive free speech, has said that it will not be intimidated. But earlier, Lai had to back off when Beijing moved against him. In 1994, he had asked former Chinese premier Li Peng to “drop dead”, and declared that the Communist Party of China was a corrupt monopoly which short-changed the people. In retaliation, Beijing had closed down outlets of the fashion retailer Giordano, which Lai had founded in 1981 ? though it is usually mistaken for an Italian brand. To save it from ruin, Lai had to quit his own company.
Lai’s arrest is a show and tell lesson. Beijing has targeted a media baron, a business tycoon and an influential backer of the pro-democracy forces with wide access overseas, to demonstrate that resistance is useless. The new national security law will be applied wherever the mainland sees signs of resistance. The arrest signals that Hong Kong has ceased to be an offshore haven where the mainland interfaced with the world, and where its writ was somewhat tempered by historical immunity.