The use of security law powers for the first time to target a listed company could have an impact on investor sentiment in the city.
Authorities in Hong Kong have frozen assets belonging to jailed media mogul Jimmy Lai, including all shares in his company, Next Digital – the first time a listed company has been subject to national security laws in the financial center.
Among the assets targeted were also the local bank accounts of three companies owned by Lai, Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee said in a government statement.
The statement, released after the market closed on Friday, said Lee had issued notices “in writing to freeze all shares of Next Digital Limited held by (Jimmy) Lai Chee-ying, and ownership in local bank accounts of three companies owned. by him”.
Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison for participating in unauthorized rallies during pro-democracy protests in 2019.
He faces three alleged charges under a sweeping new national security law imposed by Beijing, including collusion with a foreign country.
The measure against his property was also taken under the Security Act, which criminalizes acts such as subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with the possibility of life imprisonment.
The authorities’ decision to use the powers of the law for the first time to target a Hong Kong-listed company could have repercussions on investor sentiment.
There have been signs of capital flight since the law was imposed last June, to foreign countries including Canada, according to government agencies, bankers and lawyers.
Beijing said it imposed law on the former British colony to restore order after months of pro-democracy and anti-China protests in 2019.
However, critics say the law was used by Chinese Communist leaders to suppress freedoms and pro-democracy activists – many of whom were arrested and jailed, or fled into exile.
Next Digital chief executive Cheung Kim-hung told Apple Daily that Lai’s frozen assets had nothing to do with Next Digital’s bank accounts and their operations and finances would not be affected.
Company employees pledged to continue to “live up to their duty and keep reporting,” in a statement posted on the union’s Next Digital Facebook page.
According to documents filed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Lai is the largest shareholder of Next Digital and owns 71.26% of the shares valued at approximately HK $ 350 million (US $ 45 million) on the basis of the Friday closing price.
The value of other “real estate” assets frozen by the authorities was not immediately clear.
Next Digital runs Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s most influential pro-democracy newspaper, which has long been a thorn in the side of authorities in Hong Kong and China.
Senior Hong Kong officials recently cautioned Apple Daily on its coverage and hinted at the possible introduction of a “fake news” law. Critics said it was all part of an ongoing crackdown on the city’s media.
The Taiwanese branch of Apple Daily said on Friday it would stop publishing its print version, blaming declining advertising revenue and tougher business conditions in Hong Kong linked to politics.