Apple Daily, forced to close after arrests, asset freeze, was founded on a mission to hold power to account.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has reshuffled her cabinet, naming Secretary for Security John Lee as chief secretary – the number two job in government – and police chief Chris Tang as Lee’s replacement, in a move seen as a tightening of China’s grip on the territory.
The reshuffle comes a year after the introduction of national security legislation that Human Rights Watch on Friday said had “systematically dismantled” the civil and political rights of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people.
Lee’s appointment as chief secretary marks the first time that a former police officer has taken a top administrative position in the territory.
In a news conference on Friday, Lam also announced that Deputy Police Commissioner Raymond Siu would become the city’s new police chief.
While the appointments were announced by Lam, they were also made with the approval of China’s State Council, and were first announced in China’s state media.
In a brief statement following the formal announcement on Friday, Lee said that he would ensure that “patriots” were governing Hong Kong, and promised to help the chief executive implement policies to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Carrie Lam, Lee and Tang now meeting press. pic.twitter.com/itlKs5wFqY
— Alvin Lum (@alvinllum) June 25, 2021
For his part, Tang said that he would make sure that the forces under his authority would help protect the city’s “national security”, and help eradicate any forms of domestic “terrorism” and threats from “external forces”.
As police chief, Tang was the main law enforcer in the city during the 2019 pro-democracy rallies with protesters criticising police for what they said was a heavy-handed response to marches that initially were overwhelmingly peaceful.
Meanwhile, Siu said he will continue to “lead the police force in a spirit of loyalty and connecting with the community to protect Hong Kong’s national security”.
The three newly appointed officials did not take questions from reporters, leaving Lam to face the press alone.
The reshuffle came a day after the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper published its last edition after its editors and top executives were arrested and its assets frozen. Some 500 police raided the group’s headquarters after the arrests last week with Lee describing those arrested as “criminals”.
Apple Daily’s founder Jimmy Lai was arrested last August and is in jail awaiting trial under the broadly worded National Security Law that China imposed on the territory a year ago.
During the press conference, Lam told the media that her vision for the city was to “uphold citizens’ “legitimate rights”, but that the law would also be strictly enforced.
The national security legislation punishes actions deemed secession, “terrorism”, sedition and collusion with foreign forces with terms of up to life in prison.
The authorities say the law is necessary to deal with separatism and foreign interference, but critics say it is being used to crack down on political opponents.
On Friday, in a report to mark a year since the law was imposed, Human Rights Watch said Beijing had “systematic dismantled” the civil and political rights of the people of Hong Kong and the crackdown on Apple Daily was an example of the speed and intensity with which rights were being erased.
“Hong Kong people are watching the Chinese government take rapid-fire steps to destroy their democratic society,” said Maya Wang, senior Chinese researcher at the human rights group.
“They used to talk about politics, run for office and criticize the government but that’s not just off-limits now, it’s punishable by up to life in prison.”
Beijing’s actions in the territory were “coordinated and comprehensive and appear aimed to transform a mostly free city into one that follows the Chinese Community Party line,” HRW said.
In Washington, DC, two leading United States senators in a letter urged President Joe Biden to impose sanctions on those responsible for the crackdown on Apple Daily, suggesting foreign banks were among those implicated.
Senator Pat Toomey, Republican ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, a committee member, said the Hong Kong Autonomy Act passed last year required the US secretary of state to identify to Congress any foreign person, including foreign businesses “materially contributing” to the “inability of the people of Hong Kong to enjoy the freedom of assembly, speech, press, or independent rule of law”.
“It seems very likely that the breathtaking crackdown on Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily involves numerous foreign persons to whom Section 5 of the Hong Kong Autonomy Act applies,” the letter said.
The letter referred to a Reuters news agency report last month that Lee, the newly appointed chief secretary, wrote to Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai and branches of HSBC and Citibank threatening up to seven years’ jail for any dealings with the billionaire’s accounts in the city.
Lee had ordered the branches to freeze Lai’s accounts, “which they appear to have done,” said a text of the senators’ letter made available to Reuters.
After the raid last week, the senators’ letter said Hong Kong’s Security Bureau then ordered Apple Daily’s banks to freeze the newspaper’s assets, “directly resulting in its closure”.
“We urge your administration to comprehensively enforce the Hong Kong Autonomy Act in the immediate wake of the injustice imposed upon Jimmy Lai and the forced closure of Apple Daily,” it said.
The senators’ legislation requires mandatory sanctions on persons and entities that directly undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and secondary sanctions on banks that do business with those entities and people.
In their letter, the senators added that it was their understanding that the orders to the foreign banks were issued in an extrajudicial manner, by a single official outside of the court system, and without any criminal charges or subpoenas.
“These orders solidify the impression of many that the rule of law is no more in Hong Kong,” they said.
Last month, a Citi spokesperson said in response to the Reuters story that the bank was required to comply with all laws and regulations in the countries in which it operates.
HSBC declined to comment, but CEO Noel Quinn said previously that the bank has to comply with police requests in any country in the world.
On Thursday, Biden called the closure of Apple Daily a “sad day for media freedom” and said it signalled “intensifying repression” by China, while vowing to maintain support for the people of the Chinese-ruled territory.
He made no mention of any plans to impose further sanctions over the crackdown.
In March, the Biden administration identified 24 Chinese officials previously sanctioned by the Trump administration as responsible for reducing Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.
It said foreign financial institutions that knowingly conduct significant transactions with them were now subject to sanctions.
However, in its latest report to Congress required under the bill in May, the Treasury department did not identify any foreign financial institutions doing business with those people.