August 3, 2021

Hong Kong press mogul Jimmy Lai and his newspaper “Apple Daily” in Beijing’s sights

“That Beijing wishes to put an end to Apple Daily there is no doubt. What we do not know yet is how, and when, they will get there », Says to World someone close to the newspaper’s management. Since the adoption, on June 30, 2020, of the National Security Act (LSN), a draconian text imposed by Beijing which heavily condemns four political crimes defined in a very vague manner, the Hong Kong authorities give the impression of persisting against the founder of the title, the wealthy 73-year-old businessman Jimmy Lai, by laying charges against him.

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On Friday evening, May 14, the Hong Kong Security Department said it had frozen Mr. Lai’s personal assets held in seven Hong Kong accounts, linked to three companies in his name domiciled in the British Virgin Islands. Article 43 of the LSN in fact gives almost unlimited powers to the police (in particular search and confiscation) when “Certain persons or organizations have a link, directly or indirectly, with certain property which is reasonably suspected of being linked to crimes endangering national security”.

The amounts thus blocked are of the order of 500 million Hong Kong dollars (approximately 53 million euros), Jimmy Lai having transferred most of his property abroad. Reuters then revealed that the staff of the two banks involved, Citibank and HSBC, had received official letters threatening prison terms of up to seven years to anyone who carried out any transaction on the contractor’s property.

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Following this announcement, Cheung Kim-hung, CEO of Next Digital Limited group, tried to reassure his staff (around 2,000 people spread between Hong Kong and Taiwan), saying that the operation ofApple Daily, which employs 600 people, would not be affected and that the newspaper had sufficient cash flow to “Last eighteen months”. “To say that we can last eighteen months is almost like announcing the closure. Everyone knows that without Mr. Lai’s financial support, there is noApple Daily », observes a member of the editorial staff.

“Appeals for help launched to the West”

The businessman still holds nearly 72% of the shares of the holding company of Next Digital Limited, of which he regularly replenishes the coffers, because the company has a chronic deficit. At the end of 2020, it had accumulated losses of HK $ 1.9 billion. ” If Mr. Lai is deprived of voting his shares at the next general meeting, which is to be held before September, someone could take control of the group with only 15% of the shares. [qui représenteraient plus de 50 % des votes exprimés] », fears Mark Simon, Jimmy Lai’s private property manager. It would then be a hostile takeover of a listed company, implemented and facilitated by the new national security law. What to frighten all the magnates of the special administrative region.

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