The Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly severe abuse of dissident Jimmy Lai, 73, isn’t just a bad precedent for civil liberties in Hong Kong; it also spells big trouble for the region’s reputation as a global financial center where it’s safe to do business.
Yet controlling the city and eliminating dissent matter more to China’s ruthless leaders.
Last month, Secretary for Security John Lee ordered a freeze on assets and accounts linked to Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper, under “rules” of the new national security law.
It marks the first time authorities have used the law—imposed last June after millions participated in pro-democracy protests—to lock up private assets, and in this case, those of a company’s largest shareholder.
To ensure Lai couldn’t move funds offshore, authorities tagged his 71 percent majority stake in Apple Daily’s publisher, Next Digital, as well as three of his bank accounts. The South China Morning Post puts the value of the assets at $64.3 million.
His media company says it has enough money to continue operations for 16 months, but who knows after that? It’s clear the CCP wants the firm to crash and burn.
And on Tuesday, Hong Kong’s National Security Department went a step further, prohibiting Lai from exercising his voting rights in Next Digital—yet another ominous sign for Hong Kong’s free market; Lai’s corporate-voting rights are supposed to be protected by the city’s Companies Ordinance, which forbids authorities from interfering with shareholders’ rights willy-nilly.
The CCP, of course, couldn’t care less about basic human rights, never mind the shareholders’ rights of Beijing’s apparent No. 1 enemy. So targeting Lai’s finances is no surprise.
Yet even that wasn’t enough; Beijing sought to spread even more fear by having Lee also threaten officials at Lai’s banks—HSBC Holdings Plc. and Citigroup Inc.—with years in jail if they deal with any of his accounts.
“I am exercising the power because Lai has been charged with two offences of collusion with other country [sic] or external forces to endanger national security,” said Lee.
“Not content to just jail its critics, Beijing is determined to crush Jimmy Lai, whose only crime is to peacefully promote democracy in Hong Kong,” fumes Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The moves forward two goals: They continue to let Beijing make an example of Lai, and they allow it to tighten its grip on Hong Kong by scaring businesses that might consider stepping out of line by doing anything that goes against the CCP’s iron-fisted agenda.
Yet if Lai’s assets can be frozen on the basis of a nonjudicial order like Lee’s, then, as a Wall Street Journal editorial puts it, “No private contract is safe.” Such seizures make the political risk of doing business far too great.
Which may be why more than 40 percent of members surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong say they may leave the city.
“If they can induce fear in you, that’s the easiest way to control you,” Lai told the BBC in April, in one of his last televised interviews. “That’s the cheapest way to control you and the most effective way. And they know it, and they are very good at it.”
That they are.
On May 28, Lai and nine others were charged with incitement to take part in an unauthorized assembly when they walked down the road with thousands of others standing up for democracy on Oct. 1, 2019. All 10 pleaded guilty.
The charge earned Lai 14 months in prison. He’s also serving a separate 14-month sentence for other unauthorized rally charges, bringing his total hard time (so far) to a combined 20 months.
As Beijing’s drive toward total control in Hong Kong storms along, the city’s future looks ever bleaker.