A total of seven men, aged 39 to 72, were arrested, according to a police statement, on charges such as colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security and conspiring to commit fraud. The statement did not mention any individuals, but a spokesperson told CNN that Lai was among them and that he was arrested on suspicion of collusion.
“The police investigation is still ongoing, and we cannot rule out the possibility that more people will be arrested,” he added.
This is not Lai’s first clash with the Hong Kong authorities. He was arrested and charged earlier this year in connection with a protest march in August 2019. In June, Lai was charged with inciting people to participate in an unauthorized assembly during an annual candlelight vigil in memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The vigil was banned by police this year.
Lai’s latest arrest, however, is among the first since the security law was imposed on July 1. The law criminalized subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. At the end of last month, four members of a student-led independence group were arrested for suspected secessionist offenses on social media. Ten people were also arrested during a demonstration on July 1.
The Hong Kong government defended the law as necessary to protect national security. It has been denounced by human rights groups, the European Union and the United States as being too broad and restrictive of the city’s civil liberties.
On Friday, the United States Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau said in a statement that “we have repeatedly expressed our grave concerns about the effect that this ill-defined, loosely worded and far-reaching law would have on Hong Kong ”.
Lai’s arrest also comes as tensions between the United States and China over the National Security Law continue to escalate. Washington imposed sanctions on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and 10 other Chinese and Hong Kong officials on Friday for undermining the city’s autonomy.
A former clothing mogul, Lai founded the Apple Daily in Hong Kong in 1995 – two years before Hong Kong moved from British to Chinese control. Visually modeled on USA Today, the newspaper sparked a minor revolution in the city’s media landscape, sparking a price war and radically altering how rivals function as they struggled to keep up with Lai’s flashy tabloid sensibilities.
While focusing on celebrity gossip and other tabloid dishes, since the transfer, the newspaper has become one of the fiercest critics of the local government and Beijing. It has openly supported the pro-democracy movement and anti-government protests, printing flyers and posters in its pages that people can cut out and take to the marches.
This has led Lai, 71, to a prominent place within the opposition movement and made him a hate figure for pro-Beijing politicians and media in the city.
Although its media influence has arguably waned in recent years, along with that of traditional pro-democracy parties, its profile has somehow grown, thanks to a campaign by Chinese state media for the portray as one of the “gangs of four” behind anti-government protests that erupted last year.
Lai’s closeness to right-wing politicians in the United States – he met Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then National Security Advisor John Bolton in July of last year – has been used by Chinese state media to paint the entire protest movement. , as well as Apple Daily and similar media, under American control.
People’s Daily – the official spokesperson for the Chinese Communist Party – claimed back in the days when Lai was part of a quartet of “modern secret middlemen and traitors” as Beijing tried to blame the unrest in Hong Kong on foreign forces.
CNN’s Isaac Yee and Jenni Marsh contributed reporting.