Francis Moriarty: As China cracks down, Hong Kongers resist in ways they can

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WILLIAMSTOWN — China has launched its expected crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and free press — arresting a leading publisher, two of his sons and his top executives — but the move has sparked an immediate show of anger that Beijing could not have foreseen.

Increasingly denied free elections, thousands of people in the capitalist territory instantly vented their anger by voting with both their feet and their wallets.

On Monday, police arrested media tycoon Jimmy Lai, his two sons and several senior employees in a massive swoop that was televised live in the former British colony. They are being charged under a newly imposed national security law, known as the NSL, for allegedly colluding with anti-China forces overseas. Beijing also issued warrants for some people who are not Chinese citizens and live overseas.

The raid was Beijing's way of showing that it is ready to crack down on any individual or organization, anywhere, that questions its authority.

Lai is the founder of the Apple Daily and Next Media, the group's digital operation. Apple is the main voice of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. Lai, a convert to Catholicism who was born on the mainland and swam to Hong Kong, was arrested at his home.

On Monday evening, viewers worldwide watched streaming video showing more than 100 uniformed officers raiding Apple's headquarters, inspecting reporters' desks and carting away many cartons of material and computers seized from the editorial suites.

The search was designed to send a message to both local and foreign news media that Beijing will brook no suggestion, whether in Hong Kong or overseas, that Hong Kong has any right to self-determination.

But after the raid, something remarkable happened. Lengthy queues began forming across the territory as thousands of people lined up in the dark to buy copies of Apple Daily. They were propping up Jimmy Lai.

Their move suddenly shifted the narrative from Beijing's ham-fisted crackdown to a popular show of resistance.

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Police then fueled the indignation by arresting Agnes Chow, 23, a proponent of autonomy for Hong Kong who was a key member of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests.

But the show of resistance to Beijing and the Hong Kong government did not stop with buying the newspaper.

When the Hang Seng sock market opened in the morning, shares in Apple opened more than 16 percent down. Then it began rising, up by 344 percent at its highest point before closing up more than 183 percent.

Denied fair elections, many Hong Kong people had decided to cast ballots for democracy in the market.

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As this was being written, Lai was released from custody on cash bail and a personal guarantee totaling more than $64,000.

The national security crackdown is a sad and traumatic moment for Hong Kong people, and for all who love its mix of energy, enterprise and optimism. There is fear that Hong Kong is being quickly transformed into a city whose best days are behind it.

My own inbox is filled with messages of anger sprinkled with emojis of tears, fear, caring and worry. Some Hong Kongers have already moved away, or sent loved ones abroad, or would like to go but for some reason cannot. These make painful reading.

The high-visibility search of Apple was conducted by members of a new police unit created under the national security law that Beijing has imposed not only on Hong Kong people but on anybody anywhere.

This robust message is being broadcast amid Sino-U.S. tensions that are worsening during a presidential election campaign.

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The charges against Lai include collusion with a foreign country/external elements to endanger national security."

Lai, an acerbic critic of China who fled the mainland and swam to Hong Kong, is a devout Roman Catholic. He faces accusations of "collusion" with overseas political organizations and conspiring to commit an unspecified fraud.

The confiscation of materials from his headquarters, as well as the arrests of his sons and executives, suggest that Beijing is casting a wide net. Other alleged co-conspirators on the wanted list include both American and British nationals.

Many people in Hong Kong have been preparing for such a clampdown by purging their online accounts of anything potentially troublesome. Some have opened virtual private networks for safer communication. Others are preparing to emigrate. Journalists are taking extra care with what they write or say.

A recent survey of business sentiment by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong indicates a significant degree of concern about the NSL among its members. The informal poll — dubbed a temperature test — was conducted before the latest arrests. It found that more than three-fourths of respondents were "somewhat concerned or extremely concerned about the NSL," while a few felt that it would bring more security to the city's streets.

Among the concerns cited were erosion of the rule of law, worsening of US-China relations, enforcement of contracts, a possible resurgence of social unrest and general uncertainty.

The results also showed that concern had been increasing just ahead of the poll, which was conducted before the U.S. barred certain high-ranking Chinese and several Hong Kong officials from entering the U.S.

Among those declared unwelcome is Hong Kong's highly unpopular Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.

Francis Moriarty was the senior political reporter for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong covering the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.


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