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Police lead Hong kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai away from his home after arresting him under the new national security law in Hong Kong, on Aug. 10, 2020.

VERNON YUEN/AFP/Getty Images

Forty days after Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, police in the Asian financial centre raided a newspaper headquarters Monday and arrested prominent advocates for democracy, adding to fears that the law is being used to fracture the city’s long-held freedoms.

Among the 10 people arrested were Agnes Chow, a young politician and activist, and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, the billionaire majority owner of media company Next Digital who has enraged Beijing with his open criticism of the Communist Party.

Some 200 officers were deployed for the operation, which included a raid of Apple Daily, the newspaper Mr. Lai founded.

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“Officers were seen rifling through documents in the newsroom, breaching press freedom through intimidation and creating an atmosphere of white terror,” Next Digital said in a statement. The newspaper’s staff pledged to “stay fearless and continue speaking the truth amid persecution.”

Hong Kong’s police denied any political motive for the arrests, saying they were related to criminal acts and not an attack on the news media.

Canada condemns arrest of Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai as erosion of press freedom

China imposes sanctions on Republican U.S. lawmakers over Hong Kong

But critics said Monday marks a new stage in the changes sweeping the city as Beijing asserts greater control. Over the summer, pro-democracy scholars have been fired, legislative candidates have been disqualified, an election was postponed for a year and publishers and libraries alike have rushed to censor content now considered subversive or secessionist. Police have outlawed slogans and songs, and have arrested young people carrying flags calling for independence.

On Monday, police also arrested two of Mr. Lai’s sons and four of his top executives. All of those associated with Next Digital were denied bail, said Mark Simon, a close aide to Mr. Lai. Next Digital publishes newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Charges included foreign collusion and conspiracy to defraud.

Police seized about 20 boxes of material, Apple Daily reported, and took some of the company’s servers, despite objections that they could contain sensitive newsgathering information.

A live video stream showed officers questioning reporters and examining papers on their desks in an operation that continued into Monday evening. Among the items seized: three boxes of documents from the sports department.

The raid is “the start of an effort to shut us down,” Mr. Simon said in an interview.

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Mr. Lai numbers among Beijing’s most hated figures in Hong Kong, a man who has used his social standing and wealth in the service of democracy – unlike other billionaires in the city, many of whom have been unwilling to risk the financial consequences of angering China’s leaders. Mr. Lai has been called a “traitor” and a “force of evil” by Communist Party-controlled press. In April, he was among 15 people arrested on charges of organizing and participating in protests – which police called unlawful assemblies – that roiled Hong Kong last year. In late July, he reported being followed by unknown people.

A handout photo from Apple Daily shows Hong Kong business tycoon Jimmy Lai led by police officers during a search at the headquarters of Apple Daily, on Aug. 10, 2020, in Hong Kong, China.

Handout /Getty Images

Last week, the United States imposed sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other city officials. China responded Monday with sanctions against 11 U.S. officials, including senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

In the midst of the deepening rift between Beijing and Washington, the Hong Kong Liaison Office, which represents the mainland in the city, lashed out at people it accused of celebrating the imposition of sanctions on the city’s officials.

“These people are unabashedly arrogant and once again unintentionally revealed their own evil design – that they are the agents the U.S. deploys in Hong Kong, and they are the pawns of the U.S. in messing up Hong Kong,” the office wrote in a statement Monday.

“These people have completely betrayed and walked away from their country and nationality,” the statement continued. “These people are doomed to be indelibly nailed to the pillar of shame in our history.”

The statement did not name Mr. Lai, who has openly called for Western democracies to back Hong Kong. In a May 29 New York Times article, in which he presaged his own imprisonment, he wrote: “As we enter this new phase of our struggle, we need the support of the West, especially the United States.” Last year he travelled to Washington to meet with Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

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On Twitter, Mr. Lai has pilloried Chinese President Xi Jinping, calling him “the most absolute dictator in human history”; praised Mr. Pompeo for his critique of China’s leaders; and raised the alarm over the national security law that has now ensnared him.

Hong Kong “is under siege,” he wrote on July 29. A day later, he said the city is now “worse than China.” Many in Hong Kong share Western values and believe in human rights, “and our dignity instinctively rebels against tyranny,” he said. As a result, he predicted, Hong Kong is perceived by Beijing “like Xinjiang and will be treated so” – a reference to the northwestern region of China, where authorities have placed hundreds of thousands of people, many of them Muslim Uyghurs, in centres for forced political indoctrination and skills training.

Leaders in Hong Kong and Beijing have sought to reassure the public that the national security law would affect only a small number of people – those who pose a genuine threat.

But with the arrest of Mr. Lai, “the message is clear that this is a law that is not just meant for spies and bomb makers,” said Michael Vidler, a Hong Kong solicitor who has represented some of the city’s most prominent democracy activists. Instead, it can be used against “anybody who is perceived by Hong Kong authorities to be speaking out.”

“It is just so terribly sad to see, in such a short period of time, Hong Kong apparently tumbling over the abyss,” Mr. Vidler said.

The new law pledges to protect freedom of speech and of the press.

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But the arrest of Mr. Lai and other executives, “and the raid on the newsroom, are a direct assault on Hong Kong’s press freedom and signal a dark new phase in the erosion of the city’s global reputation,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), Hong Kong, said in a statement. Among those arrested Monday was Wilson Li, a former student activist who has worked as a freelance contributor to Britain’s ITV News.

“Today’s events raise worries that such actions are being used to erase basic freedoms in Hong Kong,” the FCC said.

The formal charges against Mr. Lai accuse him of breaking the law on foreign collusion and fraud. But the “surprise attack” against him, his family and his company “actually reflects the government’s intention to contain and control the media and publishing freedoms in Hong Kong,” said Wu Qiang, a former Tsinghua University scholar who is an expert in Chinese social movements.

“In short, Beijing’s definition of national security doesn’t leave any room for freedom, and Beijing wants Hong Kong people and the world to hear it clearly.”

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