HONG KONG (Reuters) - Anti-corruption officers in Hong Kong on Thursday raided the home of Jimmy Lai, a media magnate and outspoken critic of Beijing who has supported pro-democracy activists through his publications and with donations.
Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule from British colonial administration in 1997, has been deeply polarised and hit by protests over how its next leader will be chosen in 2017 – by universal suffrage, as pro-democracy campaigners want, or from a list of pro-Beijing candidates.
The raid on Lai’s home in an affluent avenue in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district came after media said on Wednesday China had decided to limit nominations for the 2017 election to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing, which will likely escalate protests by pro-democracy activists.
“The timing is not uncoincidental with this week in our opinion. If you wanted to cool things down, this is the last thing you would do,” Lai’s top aide and spokesman Mark Simon told Reuters.
The standing committee of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, is expected to announce its decision on Hong Kong’s future on Sunday.
Simon said five anti-graft officials had also searched his home.
The city’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) said later in a statement it had searched three residences and the office of a lawmaker as part of a bribery investigation.
It said it also served a “statutory notice” to the secretary general of a political party. It did not identify the people or the party and said no arrests had been made.
Lai owns Hong Kong-based media company Next Media, which publishes Next Magazine and the popular pro-democracy Apple Daily tabloid newspaper.
Lai spoke briefly to media outside his home after the raid, confirming that the ICAC officials had left but he declined to elaborate.
Trade in his Next Media Ltd was halted after the stock fell as much as 6 percent.
This month, emails leaked to Hong Kong newspapers gave details of payments that Lai made to the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement.
The group has threatened to shut down Hong Kong’s financial district with protests if Beijing does not allow the 2017 election to be fully democratic. It is not illegal in Hong Kong to receive political donations.
Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper reported that anti-graft officers had also visited the home of Labour Party lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan on Thursday and removed bank documents. Lee was among activists arrested on July 2 at a protest billed as a rehearsal for the Occupy Central movement.
A copy of a search warrant seen by Reuters gave permission for the ICAC to look for items including bank and electronic records related to payments or donations made by Lai to Labour Party officials, including Lee.
This year, Next Media said HSBC Holdings and Standard Chartered had pulled millions of dollars worth of advertisements from Apple Daily after they were pressured by Beijing.
HSBC and Standard Chartered said the decision to pull the advertising was for commercial reasons.
In July last year, Apple Daily said tens of thousands of copies of two editions of the newspaper had been torched by masked men at distribution points.
Lai’s home was also rammed by a car and the assailants left a machete, an axe and a threatening message in the driveway, it said.
Additional reporting by Grace Li; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree, Edwina Gibbs, Robert Birsel