Did the Chinese regime of Xi Jinping just make a mistake in its campaign to silence its critics in Hong Kong?
At the very least, the arrest this week of Jimmy Lai, the outspoken owner of a popular pro-democracy tabloid in Hong Kong, has rallied the territory’s residents against Beijing’s first major attempt to assert its new authority over the former British colony.
It it also a reminder that Beijing’s desire to absorb Hong Kong into the corrupt justice system that keeps Chinese citizens silent on the mainland has not yet been fulfilled, and that there is still time to try to preserve the freedoms that China vowed would continue when it took over the territory in 1997.
Mr. Lai is now out on bail, along with his two sons and four executives from his media company, who were also arrested and charged. He isn’t stashed away in a Chinese jail, the way an accused dissident or alleged threat to national security on the mainland would be.
Instead, the 72-year-old media mogul is using his freedom to speak out against the actions of Beijing and its supporters in the Hong Kong government. His Twitter feed was filled this week with sharp satire and links to Apple Daily pieces critical of China. He is still giving interviews to foreign journalists, and he went ahead with a weekly live online chat in which he discussed his arrest.
“The show must go on!” he tweeted.
Most importantly of all, his newspaper, Apple Daily, is still publishing, even though 200 Hong Kong police officers carried out a garish, nine-hour raid on its newsroom the day he was arrested.
Officers paraded Mr. Lai in handcuffs past his employees, and seized a large number of documents, on grounds that Mr. Lai had violated the controversial new security law that China imposed on Hong Kong as of July 1. The law criminalizes talk of independence and outlaws criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, casting such acts as sedition, terrorism and colluding with a foreign power.
The arrest of a high-profile media mogul and the raid on the Apple Daily newsroom were obvious intimidation and harassment tactics, designed to dampen support for independence in Hong Kong, and silence criticism of Mr. Xi’s regime.
It didn’t work. Hong Kongers lined up to buy the next day’s issue of Apple Daily, which was filled with accounts of the arrests. The tabloid sold 500,000 copies, five times the normal press run. As well, more than 20,000 Hong Kongers bought digital subscriptions in the days after the raid.
Not only that, the newspaper’s supporters answered social media calls to buy stock in Mr. Lai’s media company, Next Digital. The stock price jumped 1,200 per cent in the two days after the arrests, thanks in part to retail investors who purchased just one or two shares in solidarity. (The share price has since fallen, but it remains up overall on Thursday.)
And Mr. Lai, though scared, is still speaking his mind. Beijing’s attempt to intimidate him has backfired.
There is no doubt Mr. Xi’s henchmen will try again. Beijing has already forced Hong Kong to postpone coming local elections for a year, because pro-democracy candidates were likely to win and might have taken control of the Legislative Council. Beijing has also banned four duly elected pro-democracy LegCo members in a naked attempt to keep its side in control.
The arrest of Mr. Lai and others puts the lie to the claim by Hong Kong’s government that the new security law would only be used to crack down on pro-democracy rioting going forward, and would not be invoked to retroactively go after critics or silence the press.
Above all, China has effectively voided the “one country, two systems” international treaty it signed before it took over Hong Kong in 1997. If the new security law proves unable to intimidate Hong Kongers, no doubt Beijing will do an end run around the territory’s relatively independent justice system, with its bail laws and other inconveniences, and simply start disappearing people like Mr. Lai into mainland jails.
That’s why the world, Canada included, needs to support Mr. Lai and keep the pressure on Beijing. As Mr. Lai said in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, the longer Hong Kong can hold out, the more the world will see “how distrust-worthy China is, how dangerous it is to peace in the world.”
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