HONG KONG – Jimmy Lai, a publishing tycoon and prominent critic of the Chinese Communist Party, was accused of collaborating with foreign forces under Hong Kong’s national security law, police said Friday as Beijing stepped up efforts to get the faltering professional in the city stifle democracy movement.
Mr. Lai is the most famous person to be formally charged under the Security Act. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
Lai, 73, was arrested in August on suspicion of violating the comprehensive security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June. Police also raided the headquarters of Mr. Lai’s Apple Daily, one of the last remaining anti-Beijing publications in the city.
Mr. Lai has urged other countries to punish China for eroding freedoms in Hong Kong. He traveled to the US last year to meet officials such as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And he has called for sanctions against Chinese officials.
It is not clear what specifically the police did against the security law. As written, the law is not intended to be retroactive. Since it was imposed, Mr. Lai has said that he would be more careful with his words.
More than two dozen other people were arrested as part of the measure. 19-year-old Tony Chung, an activist also charged under the law, was convicted Friday for profaning the Chinese national flag and for attending an illegal gathering last year. Separate proceedings on charges under the national security law proceedings are still pending.
Mr. Lai was already in prison after being denied bail for fraud, a decision that he is appealing. However, he is unlikely to win his release due to charges under the national security law, which gives the authorities full powers to arrest defendants without bail.
The law also changes the legal landscape for Mr. Lai. Defendants can be tried in mainland China, where the legal system is far more opaque than in Hong Kong.
Even if Mr. Lai is tried in Hong Kong, the security law gives the Beijing-elected general manager of the city the power to appoint special judges, and the trial can take place behind closed doors.
Mr. Lai is due to appear in court on Saturday, police said.
Mr. Lai and his Apple Daily newspaper were vocal supporters of the anti-government protests that swirled around Hong Kong for months last year and posed the greatest challenge to Beijing’s rule over the territory in decades.
Mr. Lai’s activism has made him a frequent target of the Chinese Communist Party, which has denounced him officially and through pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong.
“By working openly with outside forces to endanger national security, Jimmy Lai and a small handful of other anti-China troublemakers in Hong Kong have deliberately undermined the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and the basic welfare of its citizens,” a Chinese spokesman told Der Hong Kong’s Foreign Ministry commissioner said in a statement in August.
Protests for democracy have been suppressed this year by social distancing rules, aggressive police tactics and the new security law. Last month, Beijing dealt a blow to the last remaining place of political opposition in Hong Kong when it approved the removal of four pro-democracy lawmakers from the city’s legislature.
The pro-democracy camp protested against the move by leaving the legislature en masse.