Hong Kong delists Jimmy Lai’s Next Digital amid ongoing war of words over legal case
Authorities in Hong Kong on Thursday delisted pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai’s Next Digital amid a war of words over his treatment between China and Britain.
Next Digital’s share listing, which had an estimated market value of H.K. $765 million (U.S. $98 million) was canceled from 9:00 a.m. local time on Thursday, according to a statement from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which said the company had “failed to … resume trading in its shares by Dec. 16.”
Taiwan financial expert Luo Cheng-tsung said the move had little to do with financial regulation and everything to do with political developments in Hong Kong, where the ruling Chinese Communist Party has taken direct control of the city’s daily life, citing the “chaos” of the 2019 protest movement that called for fully democratic elections.
“This development was inevitable given the changing of the political line in Hong Kong and changes in the situation for Hong Kong media organizations,” Luo said, blaming a citywide crackdown on dissent under a draconian national security law imposed on the city from July 1, 2020.
“Investment risks will increase to the extent that Hong Kong is becoming more like mainland China,” he said.
The delisting of Next Digital comes amid an ongoing war of words between Britain and China over calls for Lai’s release.
Lai’s lawyers recently called for a meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in a bid to discuss ways to secure the release of Lai, who is a British citizen.
Instead, they met with junior foreign office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan on Jan. 10, according to the Hong Kong government.
Sunak told the House of Commons on Jan. 11 that he would “remain robustly engaged” in the matter, and that his government is already taking action on Hong Kong, “not least [by] providing refuge for hundreds of thousands of people and being robust in standing up to what we believe to be Chinese aggression and the undermining of the settlement that we fought so hard to achieve.”
Beijing’s foreign ministry commissioner’s office in Hong Kong said the British government was “interfering in Hong Kong affairs.”
“[This office] strongly disapproved and firmly rejected the meeting between U.K. foreign office officials and Jimmy Lai’s purported ‘international legal team’ and their rhetoric that interfered in Hong Kong affairs,” it said, accusing them of “trying to whitewash anti-China forces in Hong Kong.”
“The facts and evidence of Jimmy Lai’s case are clear, and Hong Kong courts will make a fair verdict,” a spokesman for the office said in a statement on its website that was echoed word-for-word by a statement from the Hong Kong government.
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said on Jan. 10 that the ministry “remain[s] concerned about the targeting of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, and are following these cases carefully.”
“We continue to make clear to mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities our strong opposition to the National Security Law, which is being used to curtail freedoms, punish dissent and shrink the space for opposition, free press and civil society,” he said.
Lawyers ‘have lost confidence’
Lai was sentenced on Dec. 12 to five years and nine months in jail for fraud, in what analysts said was a further blow to attempts to restore the city’s reputation as a financial and business hub.
Meanwhile, his trial on several charges of “collusion with a foreign power” under the national security law has been postponed until September 2023, and Beijing has permitted the Hong Kong government to disbar foreign lawyers from representing him.
Australia-based activist and lawyer Kevin Yam said Lai’s legal team appears to be making a bid to turn Lai’s case into a diplomatic matter, now that they are likely to be banned from representing him in court.
“It’s pretty clear that Jimmy Lai’s lawyers have lost confidence in Hong Kong’s legal system, and feel that such cases would be better handled at the diplomatic level, as in the case of Chinese dissidents Wang Dan and Chen Guangcheng,” Yam said.
“It’s possible that they have noticed a softer tone from China on diplomatic matters in recent months and see that as an opportunity to deal with it at a diplomatic rather than a legal level,” he said.
“It’s sad, because it confirms that Jimmy Lai is being treated like a hostage.”
He said Hong Kong has already suffered irreparable damage to its reputation as an independent, common law judiciary.
“That request alone was enough to send the message that nobody is confident that Hong Kong’s legal system can handle cases in a non-political manner,” he said. “That battle has been lost.”
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.