Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying spoke of the ordeal of spending a sleepless night in police custody when he returned to his office on Wednesday but pledged to keep the newspaper running, as Beijing’s national security office in Hong Kong backed the operation in which he and others were arrested.
The 71-year-old media mogul told his staff he had no regrets about founding his tabloid-style newspaper 25 years ago although it had turned him into a target of Beijing decades later.
He became the most high-profile figure to be held under a sweeping national security law Beijing put in place six weeks ago when police arrested him, his two sons, four senior employees and three activists, including Agnes Chow Ting, on Monday.
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Shortly after returning to the company’s Tseung Kwan O headquarters to a hero’s welcome from staff, Lai called a meeting attended by dozens of employees.
He told them he was locked in a police cell with a tiny bench. “I couldn’t sleep there because I’m fat. So I lay down on the floor. Sleepless. You can’t really sleep there,” he said in a video clip of the speech seen by the Post.
“I have been thinking that if I knew this was coming, would I stick to what I used to do?” said Lai, a self-made clothing entrepreneur before he ventured into media. “But I think I would not have changed. I would still go down this path.”
Asked on his arrival at the office what would happen to the newspaper, Lai said: “[We shall] continue. Let’s continue. We have the backing of Hongkongers and we should not let them down.”
Apple Daily confirmed on Wednesday that it had sold at least 500,000 copies the day before. Its daily circulation is typically around 70,000.
Earlier, Beijing’s Office for Safeguarding National Security, a body set up in the city to oversee the new law’s implementation, said it “resolutely backed Hong Kong police’s arrests of Jimmy Lai and others”.
In its first official statement regarding any arrests since the legislation came into force on June 30, a spokesman said anyone violating the national security law and Hong Kong laws should face legal sanctions.
On Monday, police picked up Lai and the nine others, while 200 officers raided the offices of the newspaper, which is known for its anti-government and anti-Beijing stance. Those held were accused of colluding with foreign forces or committing commercial fraud.
They were released on hefty cash bail on Tuesday evening and in the small hours of Wednesday morning after police decided not to lay charges for now. Lai paid a HK$200,000 (US$26,000) cash bail and a HK$300,000 surety.
Despite spending more than 40 hours in police detention, an upbeat Lai emerged from his black sedan to enter the newspaper’s offices. He hugged his CEO, Cheung Kim-hung, who was arrested for alleged fraud, to applause from dozens of employees who received him at a lift lobby and handed him flowers.
Despite smiling occasionally, the media boss – dressed in grey jogging bottoms and a loose blue jacket – at times offered a sombre assessment of the future.
“Running a media company in Hong Kong will only become harder and harder,” he said.
Wrapping up his office walkabout, Lai said: “Fortunately enough, I was not sent to the mainland.”
Although Lai’s supporters locally made a point of showing their support, many in mainland China reacted differently.
Among those commenting on Weibo, a mainland social media site similar to Twitter, some accused Lai of being a “top criminal” as they discussed whether he should be sent across the border for trial.
Activist Chow, whose mobile phone was confiscated according to the police, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. When she was released late on Tuesday, she described the experience as “the scariest” of the four times she had been arrested, but did not elaborate.
Another activist, Wilson Li Chung-chak, a freelance videographer for British programme ITV news, declined to comment.
Monday’s swoop came after Hong Kong police had already made more than a dozen arrests under the legislation. The force has also put out a wanted list for others, including prominent activist Nathan Law Kwun-chung, who is in self-imposed exile in London.
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