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Hong Kong media tycoon and newspaper founder Jimmy Lai, center, walks out from a police station after being bailed out in Hong Kong on Aug. 12, 2020.

The Associated Press

The tightening legal regime in Hong Kong is suffocating a city that has long enjoyed liberties unavailable in other parts of China, says Jimmy Lai, the publishing tycoon arrested this week under a national security law imposed by Beijing.

“The oxygen is getting thin and we are all choking,” Mr. Lai said Thursday in an online discussion a day after he was released on bail. “But when we are choking, we are still taking care of each other – and keep resisting and keep fighting for our rule of law and freedom.”

Mr. Lai was arrested Monday and accused of colluding with foreign powers and conspiracy to defraud. He was released from police custody just after midnight Wednesday.

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His arrest has raised concerns at Next Digital, the publishing firm he founded, that he could be sent to mainland China for prosecution – and almost certain imprisonment – under the terms of the new national security law.

On Monday police also raided tabloid Apple Daily, one of Next Digital’s most important holdings.

On Thursday, Lau Siu-kai, a vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies who has been described in the city’s press as a spokesman for Beijing, argued that Next Digital “should not be considered a normal media organization” and should instead be seen as a political operation.

“The police operation at Next Media headquarters and their management-level offices involved documents and evidence of violations of the national security law,” he told the Beijing-owned Ta Kung Pao newspaper. “It is a case of the government enforcing the law at a political group, but it is not targeting a news organization.” The People’s Daily, one of Beijing’s central state media organs, said Mr. Lai’s release “did not mean that he can escape from precise punishment under the city’s law.”

But Mr. Lai, who has been a vocal scourge of the Chinese Communist Party, has remained defiant. Accused of foreign collusion, he nonetheless appeared in the online broadcast Thursday alongside Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation. “There’s an enormous amount of men and women in Congress following your fate. You have America’s support,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

Mr. Lai responded by saying the voices of the American people are the best form of succour for Hong Kong because if “they voice out in support of Hong Kong, the politicians will have to listen and react. And that will be a very good saviour for us.”

More than a dozen of Hong Kong’s new national security police came to Mr. Lai’s home Monday morning, arriving shortly after he had completed his morning exercises. Still sweating, he asked if he could wash before being arrested. “You have to be very fast and you can’t close your door,” he was told. “We have to watch you.”

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Initially worried that he would be taken to mainland China, Mr. Lai was relieved to discover that none of the officers spoke Mandarin. “Because I knew that I won’t be sent to China at least.”

Police arrested a total of 10 people in Hong Kong Monday on national security grounds, including two of Mr. Lai’s sons, four of his executives, a freelance journalist for Britain’s ITV news network and Agnes Chow, one of the top young political activists in the city. The arrests took place 40 days after the imposition of the new law.

Mr. Lai did not address the substance of the allegations against him. He had predicted his own arrest under the law. But he expressed surprise that the police would act so quickly, particularly following the outcry from the international community, which has included the cancellation of extradition treaties with Hong Kong by Canada and other countries – out of concerns people sent to the city would be redirected to face trial in mainland China – and the U.S. imposition of sanctions against the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam.

Mr. Lai believed authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing would initially “keep a low profile” in implementing the new law, he said, to maintain calm among investors and the business community.

Instead, he was led out of his home in handcuffs and held by police for more than a day and a half. He acknowledged that Hong Kong’s democracy movement is much less powerful than China’s Communist Party. “This is a long fight,” he said.

But, he added, the incompatibility between China’s authoritarian system and the liberal democratic order threatens turbulence for years to come unless Beijing alters course. “People want China to realize that without assimilating to international Western values, there won’t be peace in international trade or politics or diplomacy.”

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Though his future is uncertain – the accusations against him are punishable with life in prison – he emerged from custody more calm than when he entered.

His time in detention, he said, afforded him time to contemplate whether he would have made the same decisions in life if he knew they would lead to the charges he now faces.

He concluded that character is destiny, a realization that came with a sense of divine blessing. “It’s like God telling me, ‘Don’t fear. Just do what you do. I am with you,’” said Mr. Lai, a practising Catholic.

It was a feeling, he said, substantiated by the reaction to his arrest: the raucous group that gathered outside a police station after midnight to wish him well upon his release Wednesday; the crowds who have bought hundreds of thousands of copies a day this week of Apple Daily; the investors who have massively elevated Next Digital share prices.

“It’s just reaffirmed that whatever I have done wrong in the past, at least what I am doing now is right,” he said. “And it’s almost a message that: ‘Let’s go on.’”

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