The offense was created by a new national security law imposed on the city by Beijing last month. Lai’s business partner Mark Simon said the tycoon was arrested early Monday.
Seven men in all, aged between 39 and 72, were arrested, according to a police statement, on charges including collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security, and conspiracy to commit fraud. The statement did not name any individual, but a spokesman told CNN that Lai was among them and that he had been arrested on suspicion of collusion.
The “police investigation is still underway, and we cannot rule out the possibility that more people will be arrested,” it added.
Later Monday morning, a livestream uploaded to Facebook by Apple Daily showed police searching the company’s newsroom. A police spokesperson confirmed to CNN that the agency had a search warrant to enter Apple Daily’s office.
Under the new security law, which was imposed on the city by Beijing last month, the offense of colluding with foreign powers carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Lai has strong ties to Washington and has lobbied for the United States to take a harder line on China. What he has done to contravene the law since it passed is unclear.
The Hong Kong government has defended the law as necessary to protect national security. It has been denounced by human rights groups, the European Union, and the United States as overly broad and restrictive of the city’s civil liberties.
On Monday, Hong Kong Journalists Association chairperson Chris Yeung said that “a month or two ago, nobody could think that in Hong Kong, media organizations could be searched like this.”
“We never thought that this could happen in Hong Kong,” he added. “This is very sad.”
A former clothing magnate, Lai founded Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper in 1995 — two years before Hong Kong was handed over from British to Chinese control. Modeled visually on USA Today, the paper caused a minor revolution in the city’s media landscape, sparking a price war and drastically changing how rivals operated as they struggled to keep up with Lai’s flashy tabloid sensibilities.
While focusing on celebrity gossip and other tabloid fare, since the handover the paper has emerged as one of the fiercest critics of the local government and Beijing. It has openly supported the pro-democracy movement and anti-government protests, printing flyers and posters in its pages that people can cut out and take to marches.
This drove the 71-year-old Lai to a place of prominence within the opposition movement, and made him a figure of loathing for pro-Beijing politicians and media in the city.
The People’s Daily — the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party — claimed at the time that Lai was part of a quartet of “secretive middlemen and modern traitors,” as Beijing tried to blame the unrest in Hong Kong on foreign forces.
CNN’s Isaac Yee and Jenni Marsh contributed reporting.