Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily publisher Next Digital, was arrested on suspicion of ‘collaborating with foreign forces’ on Monday
Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily publisher Next Digital, was arrested on suspicion of ‘collaborating with foreign forces’ © Tyrone Siu/Reuters

China has imposed sanctions on 11 American lawmakers and foreign policy experts in response to similar US measures on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, as tensions between the two powers escalate.

Beijing on Monday hit back at the US after President Donald Trump last week brought sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials over their role in imposing a draconian security law on the Asian financial centre.

The Chinese move came after Hong Kong police detained media tycoon Jimmy Lai for allegedly breaching the security law, in the highest-profile arrest since the legislation was introduced in June.

The Chinese foreign ministry said it was imposing sanctions on a number of US senators, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Pat Toomey, Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton, as well as congressman Chris Smith.

China also targeted Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, and Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a US government-funded organisation. It did not provide any details about the sanctions.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Mike Pence, the US vice-president, said the arrest of Mr Lai was “deeply offensive”. 

“The United States will continue to stand with Jimmy Lai and all the freedom loving people of Hong Kong. #FreeJimmyLai,” Mr Pence wrote on Twitter.

Most of the senators dismissed the move, and warned China that Washington would continue to take a harsh stance towards the Communist party.

“The Chinese Communist party thinks that it can distract from its crackdown on Hong Kong, including the arrest of freedom fighter Jimmy Lai, by re-announcing sanctions against Senator Cruz that were already not credible . . . It won’t work,” said his spokesperson.

Mr Rubio, one of the most vocal China hawks on Capitol Hill, mocked Beijing’s move. “Last month #China banned me. Today they sanctioned me. I don’t want to be paranoid but I am starting to think they don’t like me,” Mr Rubio tweeted.

Mr Cotton, who, along with Mr Cruz and Mr Rubio is viewed as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024, also attacked Beijing. “If China thinks my opposition to its communist tyranny to date warrants these sanctions, I have two words for them: just wait,” Mr Cotton said.

The US last week imposed sanctions on 11 Hong Kong and Chinese officials over the implementation of the security law, including the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam. Most China experts in Washington expect Mr Trump will take an even tougher stance ahead of the US election.

“In response to the mistaken behaviour of the US, China implemented sanctions, effective from today, against those who have displayed vile behaviour on Hong Kong issues,” said China’s foreign ministry. 

The tit-for-tat measures will add to tensions between the two countries since the introduction of the law, which was intended to crack down on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy and protest movements.

In addition to Mr Lai, six others, including two of his sons and other executives of his media group Next Digital, were also detained by the police, according to Mark Simon, a close aide to the entrepreneur.

Mr Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper released photos and live video showing several officers filing into Next Digital’s high-rise offices and beginning their searches.

They later said the number of arrests had risen to 10, including activist Agnes Chow, a former leading member of pro-democracy political group Demosisto. The police said the three were involved in running an organisation actively requesting foreign countries or organisations to impose sanctions on Hong Kong.

The police said senior executives of a media company supported the group financially using foreign accounts.

The Hong Kong government has cracked down on local activists after the national security law came into force, through arrests or by barring pro-democracy candidates from running in local elections.

The US and its allies have condemned the Hong Kong and Chinese governments over the law. Aside from the sanctions against Ms Lam and others, Mr Trump has withdrawn Hong Kong’s special trading status, which exempted the territory from sanctions applied to mainland China.

Foreign ministers of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network, which comprises the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, on Monday issued a letter sharply criticising Hong Kong officials for postponing legislative elections and disqualifying pro-democracy candidates.

Ms Lam delayed the poll scheduled for September 6, citing the coronavirus pandemic. But critics alleged the decision was more driven by politics than the health crisis.

“Beijing promised autonomy and freedoms under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle to the Hong Kong people in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN-registered treaty, and must honour its commitments,” said the letter.

Mr Lai, 72, is the founder of Next Digital, the Hong Kong-listed publisher of newspaper Apple Daily and Next Magazine, which are among the most popular publications in the city. He found early success with the fashion chain Giordano but said he was inspired to move into publishing by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

China has previously accused Mr Lai of endangering national security after he met Mike Pence, the US vice-president, last year and Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, in July 2019. Beijing has accused him of being one of the masterminds behind Hong Kong’s anti-government protests.

Mr Lai was arrested on suspicion of “collaborating with foreign forces”, according to Mr Simon. The crime carries a sentence of up to life imprisonment. Mr Lai was already facing other criminal charges related to illegal assembly and intimidating a reporter. He has pleaded not guilty to intimidating a reporter and is expected to plead not guilty to illegal assembly.

Shares in Next Digital plunged in morning trading on Monday only to swing to gains of as much as 344 per cent in afternoon trading in Hong Kong as online pro-democracy forums called on investors to buy the stock.

Stanley Wong, a columnist for Apple Daily, said he had bought 1.2m shares in the company as a “show of support” for the company. Mr Wong sold his shares as other investors piled in and said he would use the HK$75,000 (US$9,700) profit to fund a scholarship at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

*This article has been amended to show the current status of Agnes Chow’s affiliation with Demosisto

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