Thu, 24 Sep 2020

Police in Hong Kong released pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow and media tycoon Jimmy Lai late on Tuesday on bail, pending charges of "collusion with foreign powers" under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Chow left Tai Po police station after 11.00 p.m. on Tuesday, local time, after surrendering her passport and paying a HK$200,000 bond.

"I would say that it's very obvious that the regime and the government are using the National Security Law to suppress political dissidents," Chow told waiting journalists following her release.

"I hope that more people will keep an eye on the situation in Hong Kong, and that Hongkongers won't give up," she said.

Chow said the charge against her relates to comments she made on social media, but is unclear which posts on which platforms were deemed in breach of the national security law.

Lai was released from Mong Kok police station shortly after midnight, but declined to comment. Supporters shouted support for his pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, which was raided by national security police on Monday, as he walked to his car.

Several of his colleagues at Next Media and his two sons were also released on police bail, government broadcaster RTHK reported.

Apple Daily journalists told RFA that Lai's arrested was likely just the start of a campaign targeting the paper, which has been a staunch supporter of opposition campaigns for greater democracy, and its journalists.

"We foresaw that our boss Jimmy Lai would be arrested one day, and we also know that the Apple Daily will be shut down sooner or later," a journalist at the newspaper told RFA. "But even though we were mentally prepared for this day, we still felt sad and scared when it did arrive."

Major blow to freedom

The journalist, who gave a nickname A Mei, said the raid had been a major blow to freedom of speech and the press, affecting everyone in Hong Kong.

"Everyone should take responsibility for protecting our freedom of speech," she said. "It shouldn't just be down to the Apple Daily, right?"

While the newspaper's headquarters in the Next Digital building on an industrial estate in Kowloon's Tseung Kwan O district had largely returned to normal by Tuesday, a journalist who gave only the nickname A Cheong said he was shocked when around 200 uniformed national security police trooped into the paper's newsroom on Monday, cordoning off the area and searching journalists' personal belongings and work spaces.

But he said he has no plans to quit.

"I think Hong Kong people really value our alternative voice," he said. "It is similar to their support for the [pro-protest] yellow economic circle of businesses."

He said mass-buying of the paper on the morning after the raid showed the extent of support for the "yellow" camp, despite claims from Hong Kong and Chinese officials that the majority of people in the city welcomed the new national security regime because they were fed up with months of mass protest.

He pointed to the recent postponement of elections to the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) by the authorities, citing coronavirus concerns.

"The people of Hong Kong did this because they are truly desperate," A Cheong said. "Now that there will be no elections for LegCo, all they can use to vote is their money."

"I understand why people would treasure a copy of the Apple Daily so much."

Police take names, addresses

While police denied that they had removed any journalistic materials in the raid, sources inside the building said they searched the editorial department, the administration and accounts departments, executive offices, and the server room.

They also asked everyone in the building to provide their personal details, including their residential addresses, and to answer questions about their role in the company, the sources said.

During the raid, police officers cordoned off the entrances and exits of the building and asked staff to gather in the atrium, but wouldn't allow them to eat lunch in the canteen.

The paper's management has told its employees to look out for any suspicious items in their work spaces, including secret cameras or listening devices, and to make mental preparation for police to pay a call on them at home.

A Sang, a veteran journalist who has been in the industry for more than 20 years, has been with the paper since its founding in 1995.

But he said the paper's sympathetic coverage of last year's anti-extradition movement, anti-government protests, and pro-democracy movement had likely touched a nerve in Beijing.

He thinks the paper could be shut down at any time under the national security law, and is making plans to leave Hong Kong.

"It's sad that a journalist has to run away rather than carrying on reporting the truth at such a significant time," he said. "But the real tragedy is that some people still don't think there's a problem."

'I'm not scared'

Journalist A Man said he will stay in his post until the bitter end, however.

"The fact that they took people's personal details means that they could arrest us or launch an investigation into us," he said. "They will always have ways to access employee information."

"But I'm not scared. I think this incident has increased solidarity among our colleagues, and our will to carry on opposing this regime," he said.

A Kei, a veteran tabloid journalist with a reputation as a dirt-digger, said the raid will likely increase public trust in the paper.

"I'm pretty optimistic about this company's future," he said. "It really represents the core values of Hong Kong, and people won't want it to fold."

"They will find any way to support it that they can ... and we will stay at our posts until the last possible minute," he said. "Apart from that, we won't pay too much heed to [the raid]."

Foreign lawmakers slam crackdown

The Interparliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a group of lawmakers from eight democratic nations, hit out via its Twitter account at the crackdown on Lai, Chow, and the Apple Daily.

"#IPAC calls for the dropping of all charges against Hong Kong journalists and activists arrested under the National Security Law," the group tweeted.

Meanwhile, Chow's arrest appeared to have focused minds in Japan, where social media users were credited with starting the #FreeAgnes hashtag on Twitter.

Chow, who speaks fluent Japanese, was being described by some as the "goddess" of the Hong Kong democracy movement, while other social media comments likened her to the legendary Chinese soldier Mulan, using memes with the hashtag #TheRealMulan.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga publicly expressed concern over the situation in Hong Kong on Tuesday, breaking Tokyo's usual reticence over events in China.

In comments carried by NHK, Suga said Japan had conveyed its position to China in various ways, including during phone conversations between their foreign ministers.

Chow spoke to journalists in Japanese after she was released, as well as her native Cantonese, thanking her supporters for the hashtag campaign.

Reported by Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Tseng Yat-yiu for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

Copyright © 1998-2018, RFA. Published with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

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