BEIJING — As China’s top legislative body meets this week to mull Hong Kong’s political future, Hong Kong authorities raided the home of a media mogul who’s used his wealth to support pro-democracy forces in the former British territory.
Officers of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption spent nearly four hours Thursday morning at the Kowloon residence of Jimmy Lai, the owner of the newspaper Apple Daily and other media in Hong Kong, according to various Hong Kong media.
The South China Morning Post suggested the investigation could be related to previous disclosures about Lai’s financial contributions to pro-democracy politicians and groups.
But Lai’s supporters quickly came to his defense, characterizing the raid as an obvious attempt by pro-Beijing authorities to silence and possibly prosecute a leading opponent. Lai’s Apple Daily has been highly critical of the mainland’s policies toward Hong Kong, including its perceived attempts to influence how the semiautonomous region will carry out elections for a chief executive in 2017.
Also on Thursday, several Hong Kong netizens posted photos of what appeared to be armored personnel vehicles passing through the city’s streets in the early morning hours. The timing might have been a coincidence, but it intensified fears among some in Hong Kong that China’s Communist Party is again engaged in an intimidation campaign.
China regained sovereignty over the region in 1997, after a 1984 pledge by then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping that Hong Kong would maintain a “high degree” of autonomy under the principle of “one country, two systems.”
Hong Kong’s Constitution grants it the authority to carry out its first elections for chief executive in 2017. While China’s Communist Party has said it will honor that agreement, it’s rejected calls to let Hong Kong voters directly nominate candidates for the post. Instead Beijing wants a nominating committee to decide the potential contenders, a screening process that democracy advocates say is unacceptable.
On Monday, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, began deliberations in Beijing on procedures for electing Hong Kong’s chief executive. While the committee isn’t expected to announce its decision until Sunday, some Hong Kong media have reported that one has already been rendered.
Citing an unnamed source, Hong Kong’s RTHK radio reported this week that the committee had approved a draft resolution that would allow only two to three candidates to run in the 2017 election, with no open nominations.
If that proves to be the committee’s final decision, it’s sure to fire up supporters of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement. Led by academics and civic activists, with a large following of young people, Occupy Central has said it will mobilize tens of thousands of protesters to potentially shut down the city’s central business district this year. They’ll do so, it says, if Beijing insists on an election process that doesn’t meet international standards.
Lai is a flamboyant figure in Hong Kong and a big supporter of Occupy Central. As the story goes, he was smuggled to Hong Kong in 1960 as a 12-year-old, worked as a child laborer and eventually built his wealth in the garment business. After China’s crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Lai became a vocal advocate for democracy in Hong Kong and the mainland, and he’s spent the last two decades building up publications to spread that message.
Journalists in Hong Kong have long paid a price for being outspoken. Most recently, Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily, was stabbed and seriously wounded in broad daylight on a city street in February.
In July, leaked documents led the Hong Kong media to report that Lai had contributed millions of Hong Kong dollars to groups and politicians that are part of the region’s “pan-democratic” camp, with some of the contributions in the form of free advertising. Lai has since said that some of the disclosures were from hackers who’d obtained his email.
Along with raiding Lai’s house Thursday, investigators visited the home of pan-democratic lawmaker and Labor Party leader Lee Cheuk-yan, taking documents. Lee had earlier acknowledged receiving contributions from Lai, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.
In recent days and weeks, mainland China’s government-controlled media have published a stream of editorials criticizing Occupy Central’s demands and tactics. In an editorial Tuesday, the Global Times, an arm of the People’s Daily, warned against letting Hong Kong fall into “the Western sphere of influence.”
“The opposition camp in Hong Kong embraces some unrealistic illusions that must be knocked out,” the editorial said. “A number of extremists must pay for their illegal confrontational behavior.”
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.