Mr. Lai’s case was followed hours later by a disclosure that the authorities in China had detained a Chinese citizen working for Bloomberg News.
HONG KONG — In two strokes unveiled on Friday, the Chinese Communist Party laid out in stark relief the rapidly shrinking space for speech and independent journalism in China.
In Hong Kong, the police said on Friday that Jimmy Lai, the outspoken founder of an ardently antigovernment newspaper, had been charged under the city’s new national security law with colluding with foreign forces. Hours later, Bloomberg News disclosed that plainclothes security officials had earlier that week detained Haze Fan, a Chinese staffer in Beijing, also on potential national security violations.
Both announcements were shrouded in secrecy. The police in Hong Kong did not specify how Mr. Lai was said to have colluded with foreign countries. Chinese officials said only that Ms. Fan, who had been taken four days earlier from her apartment, was accused of “criminal activities that jeopardize national security,” according to Bloomberg’s report.
But both cases made clear how potent the party’s aggressive use of national security concerns has been in spreading fear, both among its own people and in foreign organizations
Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong said the indictment of Mr. Lai was a clear warning that Beijing intended to use the security law, which was just enacted in June, to silence dissent and erode free speech. Mr. Lai had been one of the most internationally recognized faces of last year’s massive pro-democracy protests, pouring his fortune and his platform into supporting them.
In the mainland, the news of Ms. Fan’s detention sent ripples of disquiet among foreign news outlets, which have already been beleaguered by expulsions of journalists and tightening reporting restrictions.
Many supporters of democracy in once-freewheeling Hong Kong have long feared that the Communist Party is seeking to turn the semiautonomous territory into just another mainland city. Friday’s dual revelations showed some of them just how much the differences between the two places had collapsed.
“I have always questioned why the national security of the Chinese regime is so fragile,” Lo Kin-hei, the chairman of Hong Kong’s opposition Democratic Party, said of the twin allegations. “They just keep on using these kinds of laws or these kinds of allegations to try to silence people.”
The move against Mr. Lai, the most high-profile person to be charged under Hong Kong’s new law, was not a surprise. State-run news outlets have railed against him as a “black hand” behind last year’s protests, pointing to his trip last year to the United States to lobby Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for action against China. Chinese officials have openly thirsted for him to be punished.
Mr. Lai at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre on Dec. 3, after being denied bail.Credit…Jerome Favre/EPA, via Shutterstock
That call was answered in August, when Mr. Lai was arrested on suspicion of violating the security law, and police officers raided the headquarters of Apple Daily, his newspaper. The indictment on Friday stems from that arrest.
If convicted, Mr. Lai could face up to life in prison. Under the national security law, court proceedings can be held behind closed doors, and defendants can even be removed to mainland China to stand trial.
The police did not specify what Mr. Lai was accused of having done to violate the security law. As written, the law is not supposed to be retroactive, and since it was imposed, Mr. Lai has said that he would be more careful about his words, shying away for example from explicit requests to American lawmakers.
But Claudia Mo, a former pro-democracy lawmaker, said many believed the authorities were merely looking for a premise on which to shut down Apple Daily, which has continued to needle the government even after the security law was enacted.
“This seems likely a key part of their ideological control over Hong Kong,” Ms. Mo said. “They hate Lai’s high political profile and find his media influence more than bothersome.”
Mr. Lai was already in jail after being denied bail on unrelated fraud charges, a decision he is appealing. But because of the charge under the national security law, which grants the authorities sweeping powers to hold defendants without bail, it is unlikely that he will win release.
The indictment followed a string of punishments for other high-profile figures in recent weeks. The young activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow were sentenced to jail last week, and several pro-democracy lawmakers were ejected from the city’s legislature last month, leading the rest of the opposition, including Ms. Mo, to resign en masse.
In targeting Mr. Lai, the Chinese government may also have been sending a message to other countries that have been harshly critical of its crackdown on Hong Kong. President Trump’s administration this week imposed travel bans and financial sanctions on 14 senior Chinese officials it said were responsible for the repression. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has also promised to take a tough stance on China.
Few details were available on Friday about the accusations against Ms. Fan, the Bloomberg staffer. In the mainland, the sweeping set of potential national security charges includes illegally obtaining or sharing confidential government information, or engaging in political subversion.
According to Bloomberg’s news report, Ms. Fan disappeared into the hands of investigators on Monday, soon after she was last in contact with a Bloomberg editor. Bloomberg said it published its report after receiving confirmation from Chinese authorities that Ms. Fan had been detained.
John Micklethwait, Bloomberg’s editor in chief, told employees on a call on Friday that the company was doing everything it could to secure Ms. Fan’s release, according to a person aware of the remarks but who requested anonymity because the comments were not public.
Mr. Micklethwait urged the staff to keep covering China and finance and business in the world as they always had and said the company was proud of its coverage, the person said. He said the company did not know why Ms. Fan had been detained.
The news organization tried to obtain information about Ms. Fan’s whereabouts from the Chinese government and Chinese embassy in Washington, the report said. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond immediately to a fax and phone calls about the case.
The Chinese government bans Chinese citizens from doing independent reporting for foreign news organizations, allowing them to work only as researchers and assistants. Bloomberg News, whose lifeblood is financial and business reporting, employs many Chinese in its large Beijing operation.
Foreign journalists in China have become a growing point of tension in recent years. The Chinese foreign ministry has often complained of what it sees as biased coverage from Western news outlets, and this year it expelled a dozen or so American journalists after the United States expelled a number of Chinese reporters.
The list of recent articles that Ms. Fan helped on features mostly reports about Chinese businesses. But she also worked on reports about the coronavirus pandemic that began in Wuhan, trade tensions between China and the United States, and other broader topics.
In her profile on LinkedIn, Ms. Fan described herself as a senior producer in China for Bloomberg, where she has worked since 2017. Previously, she worked for CNBC, Al Jazeera and other news outlets.
In August, the authorities in Beijing detained Cheng Lei, an Australian of Chinese descent who was working as a journalist for CGTN, a Chinese state-run broadcaster. Officials later said Ms. Cheng was suspected of violating national security laws, but no details have been disclosed.
In 2004, Zhao Yan, a Chinese researcher for The New York Times’s Beijing bureau, was detained by state security officers. Mr. Zhao was initially accused of disclosing state secrets to The Times, linked to reporting on Communist Party leaders. He was later convicted on a lighter charge of fraud, and served three years in prison.
Mr. Lai’s indictment and Ms. Fan’s detention come at a potentially sensitive time for China geopolitically. China has come under heavy fire from Western countries, especially the United States, Britain and Australia, for its new constrictions on Hong Kong.
The Communist Party has aggressively rejected those criticisms. But some officials and state newspapers have also indicated that they would seek a reset with the United States under Mr. Biden — a reset that these moves could endanger.
But Willy Lam, a professor of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said China’s leader, Xi Jinping, was determined to broadcast strength against “the so-called bullying and intimidation from the U.S. and the Western world.”
“This is a show of defiance,” Professor Lam said of the charge against Mr. Lai, “telling the world that in spite of the sanctions and so forth, there is no possibility that they would relax this tight regime.”
Elsie Chen and Amber Wang contributed research.
Source: The New York Times