HONG KONG -- Hong Kong police arrested pro-democracy advocate Agnes Chow and media tycoon Jimmy Lai on Monday in the first high-profile action under the new national security law imposed on the city by Beijing on June 30.
The detention of two prominent activists bookended a day of sweeping police operations that also included the arrests of eight other people on suspicion of endangering national security by colluding with foreign forces, money laundering and conspiracy of fraud.
Chow was accused of inciting secession and taken into custody at her residence on Monday night. "Police officers have arrived and began searching Agnes' home," a social-media administrator posted on Chow's Facebook page. "The lawyer is rushing there."
Chow had been out on bail, awaiting a court verdict over her role in unauthorized protests last year. She previously pleaded guilty to illegal assembly charges.
The police action started on Monday morning with the arrest of Lai. According to Apple Daily, the feisty Chinese-language newspaper founded by Lai and known for its critical articles about Hong Kong and mainland Chinese affairs, those arrested included his sons, Timothy and Ian.
The 10 arrested remained in police custody late Monday and police can deny bail under the new law.
Speaking at news conference on Monday night, senior superintendent Li Kwai-wah, of a newly formed security law unit, said those arrested are allegedly involved in an organization that calls for foreign countries to interfere with Hong Kong issues and impose sanctions on the city's officials.
The organization was founded last year and continued its operations after the security law was enacted, Li said.
The national security law provides for penalties of up to life imprisonment as well as the possibility of prosecution and trial in mainland China for the crimes of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Some 200 police arrived at the headquarters of Next Digital, Lai's media company, midmorning to search its offices. Shares of the company fell as much as 16.7% to a low of 7.5 Hong Kong cents in morning trading.
The stock then soared in the afternoon after an online call by activists to show support for the company and press freedom by buying its stock, touching a 14-month high of 40 Hong Kong cents before closing up 183.3% at 25.5 Hong Kong cents.
Next Digital, whose shares closed at 9 Hong Kong cents on Friday, was the most traded stock in the city for the day.
"I believe in Next Digital and the values they stand for, regardless of political risks and a potential halt in trading of the shares," Stanley Wong, a professional investor who writes a financial column for Apple Daily, said to the Nikkei Asian Review after telling his Facebook followers that he had bought the company's stock to show his support.
"I appreciate Jimmy Lai, his business achievements, his bravery and his persistence to run his media," Wong said. In a later post, he said he had sold most of the 1.2 million shares he had purchased and would donate 75,000 Hong Kong dollars ($9,676) to a scholarship fund at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, his alma mater.
Concerns that the security law undermines civil liberties in Hong Kong and overrides the city's autonomous status led the U.S. last week to impose sanctions on Carrie Lam, the city's chief executive, and 10 other Hong Kong and mainland officials. The U.S. earlier revoked trade preference for the city and suspended its extradition agreement with Hong Kong, a move also taken by several other Western governments.
"This has sent out a very negative message and, of course, must have a chilling effect on people who want to speak out, particularly on the news media," said Emily Lau, a former legislator and retired journalist. "People are very, very worried when they will be next on the list to be arrested."
Global Times, a tabloid under the wing of Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, said in a Chinese-language editorial on Monday that Lai's arrest signaled that the Hong Kong government "is not scared off by the series of sanctions by the U.S. against high-ranking officials."
"In the past, Hong Kong laws were helpless to handle a person like him," the paper said of Lai, noting the value of the new security law and its "tiger's teeth." Beijing on Monday afternoon also announced its own retaliatory sanctions against 11 U.S. individuals including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Anne-Marie Brady, a professor specializing in Chinese politics at New Zealand's University of Canterbury, tweeted that Lai's arrest "is not just meant to silence Jimmy Lai & Apple Daily, [but] its goal is to intimidate others in Hong Kong," adding that it was "chillingly reminiscent of [the] first phase of CCP bringing post-1949 Beijing under control, when govt rounded up 'foreign spies' & held daily public executions."
The arrests brought strong condemnation from foreign governments.
A spokesperson for the European Union said in a statement that Monday's arrests will "further stoke fears that the national security law is being used to stifle freedom of expression and of the media in Hong Kong."
It is "essential that the existing rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents are fully protected, including freedom of speech, of the press and of publication, as well as freedom of association and of assembly," the statement said.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, is one of the 11 U.S. citizens to be included on Beijing's sanction list. The veteran rights activist said the charge against him "is little more than an effort to distract attention from [China's] wholesale assault on the rights of the people of Hong Kong."
He added that arresting publishers, barring pro-democracy candidates and indefinitely postponing elections are "the hallmarks of the Chinese Communist Party." Roth, who was already barred from entering Hong Kong in January, said the latest sanction "is a mere footnote to such abuses."
Until now, arrests under the law had included a number of protesters and four young students alleged to have called for Hong Kong independence online. The only person brought to court under the law has been a motorcyclist charged with inciting secession and committing terrorism in relation to a collision with police during a protest on July 1.
Lai already faces charges for allegedly leading unauthorized demonstrations this year and last year. A longtime public supporter of democracy in both Hong Kong and mainland China, Lai has been a persistent target of Beijing's ire.
He was compelled to sell his stake in Giordano, the clothing chain he founded, in the wake of his activism after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Next Digital has struggled in recent years as advertisers avoided its publications under pressure from Beijing's supporters.
In July 2019, Lai met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the White House to discuss Hong Kong's political situation. The Chinese foreign ministry accused Lai then of "inviting foreign interference."
During this period, state media named Lai as part of a "Gang of Four" responsible for widespread anti-government protests in Hong Kong, in echo of the four Chinese radical leaders who took the blame for the disastrous Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lai has often received death threats for his outspoken stance against the Chinese leadership.
Additional reporting by Stella Wong.