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Probe on Frederic Choi's Butterfly Effect; Jimmy Lai Likely under Long Jail But Hard for Govt to Ban Apple Daily


This is translated from CitizenNews' weekly digest tracking Hong Kong's political news over the past week. (一周政情:《蘋果日報》能否如常運作,繼續批評特區政府?

In the past week, there were 2 pieces of political news that attracted the most attention. One is that the head of the National Security Department of the Police Force, Frederic Choi, is under investigation after it was revealed that he patronised an unlicensed massage parlour. The other is that on 14 May, the government invoked the implementation details of the National Security Law to freeze the shares and assets of the controlling majority shareholder of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai. On the same day, Taiwan's Apple Daily announced that it will cease its publication on 18 May and switch to online operation.

The suspension of Frederic Choi from his job and putting him under investigation remain under a shroud of mystery. From the limited information that has come to light, the following points can be observed:

(1) It was not the media that took the initiative to investigate and expose the incident, but 2 media outlets close to the government received information and tacitly agreed to break the story late at night, making it difficult for other newspapers to carry it substantially. On the following day, the Commissioner of Police confirmed the media reports to a limited extent. The whole operation seems to be a self-initiated scandal, and coincidentally, the Chief Executive and the senior management of the Police Force received a powder letter immediately after the scandal was exposed, which objectively had the effect of diverting attention.

(2) From the time of the incident to the time when the news came to light, it took more than a month. During this long month, the top echelon of the Police Force, together with the Chief Executive, key Beijing officials in Hong Kong, and officials in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs in Beijing, must have held many meetings and had many in-depth discussions, but the final choice was to let the incident come to light and announce that Choi was ordered to take leave to be investigated, and that the Police's Organised Crime and Triad Bureau was responsible for the investigation. This choice shows that Beijing and the top echelons of the SAR Government have already given up on Frederic Choi.

Frederic Choi, head of the National Security Department of the Police Force. 

(3) If Beijing wanted to protect Frederic Choi, there surely would have been ways to do so. After all, all those involved in the incident are within the control of the Police Force, and even in a case as extensive as the 21 July Yuen Long terrorist attack, where there is plenty of evidence of collusion and cover-up by the Police Force, the top brass of the Police Force can still get away with it and not be subject to any investigation, never mind shouldering any responsibility. Compared to that, Choi visiting an unlicensed massage parlour is only a trivial matter. If the Central Government had wanted to save the face of the National Security Department by ordering a cover-up of the incident, it would have been possible to make it a minor issue and wait a few months before transferring him to another post, which would have been more conducive to maintaining the prestige of the National Security Bureau. But in the end, the government chose to let the incident come to light, reflecting that there were some compelling factors that made it impossible for the government to cover it up. The question of what these compelling factors were and whether they were related to the internal factional struggle within the National Security system is the focus of the whole incident.

(4) Now that the incident has been made public, the damage done to the Police Force and the National Security Department is irreparable. More seriously, the incident will inevitably affect the image of the Central Government. As the first anniversary of the promulgation of the National Security Law is just over a month away, Beijing is expecting Hong Kong's national security officers to solve major case after case, proving that the Central Government is wise and decisive in enacting the National Security Law directly for Hong Kong. Now, when Hong Kong people talk about the National Security Department, they think of Frederic Choi and the unlicensed massage parlour that represent erotic massage and collusion between the police and the triads, which will inevitably undermine the effectiveness of the National Security Law. In the past, Frederic Choi was a popular candidate to succeed the Commissioner of Police, but now he has become a negative asset of the Police Force, so the future Commissioner will have to be someone else.

As for the Government's use of the National Security Law against Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily, the incident is still developing, and the main points of the preliminary analysis are as follows:

(1) The government's use of the National Security Law to prosecute Jimmy Lai is quite weak in terms of evidence, as Jimmy Lai has stopped lobbying foreign governments to sanction Hong Kong after the National Security Law came into effect, and has avoided calling for international sanctions in his speech. However, by listing his lobbying and pro-sanctions comments before the implementation of the National Security Law, the prosecution is attempting to prove that he has continued to speak and act in the same way after the implementation of the National Security Law. If successful, this would make the National Security Law retroactive and have far-reaching implications. Given the importance the Central Government attaches to the case of Jimmy Lai, it is likely that the Hong Kong courts will convict him under immense political pressure. Even if the court acquits him, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) could intervene through an interpretation of the Basic Law and force the court to convict him according to Beijing's understanding. Lai is unlikely to shake off his destiny of long incarceration.

(2) If Jimmy Lai is imprisoned for a long period of time, can Apple Daily, which he founded, continue to operate as usual and criticise the SAR Government? One of the measures taken by the government is to pick on the use of the land in Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate, questioning the use of the newspaper as the office address of Lai's private company or charitable foundation, thus violating the lease of the industrial estate. Another measure is to freeze the shares of Next Media in the name of Jimmy Lai, which will prevent him from exercising his rights as a shareholder and from lending funds to support Apple Daily's operations, putting Apple Daily under heavy financial pressure.

(3) Apple Daily is said to have 600,000 paid subscribers, with an average monthly subscription fee of about $50 per person. Even if it loses its printing base and is forced to stop printing newspapers, it can still focus on its online media, which can support a news team of several hundred people with its subscriptions. Even if its website is attacked by hackers, it can still publish news through web platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. It is objectively very difficult for the government to ban Apple Daily.

(4) The government's recent proposal to legislate against fake news is believed to target media outlets such as Apple Daily, which the government considers to be its enemy, and to use criminal laws to control these media outlets and prevent or retaliate against them for reporting against those in power. This set of legal weapons, together with the proposed national security law and the pending anti-doxxing law, will drastically change the legal environment in Hong Kong. The freedom of the press and speech will be gone for good.


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