HONG KONG — Jimmy Lai, a publishing tycoon and a prominent critic of the Chinese Communist Party, was charged with colluding with foreign forces under Hong Kong’s national security law, the police said on Friday, as Beijing intensified its efforts to smother the city’s faltering pro-democracy movement.
Mr. Lai is the most high-profile person to be formally charged under the security law. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison.
Mr. Lai, 73, was arrested in August on suspicion of violating the sweeping security law, which Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June. The police also raided the headquarters of Mr. Lai’s newspaper, Apple Daily, one of the last remaining anti-Beijing publications in the city.
Mr. Lai has pushed other countries to punish China for its erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong. He traveled to the United States last year to meet officials including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And he has called for sanctions on Chinese officials.
It is not clear what the police say he did specifically to violate the security law. As written, the law is not supposed to be retroactive. Since it was imposed, Mr. Lai has said that he would be more careful about his words.
More than two dozen others have been arrested under the measure. Tony Chung, 19, an activist who was also charged under the law, was convicted on Friday of desecrating the Chinese national flag and participating in an unlawful assembly last year. A separate trial on charges under the national security law trial is pending.
Mr. Lai was already in jail after being denied bail on unrelated fraud charges, a decision he is appealing. But because of the charge under the national security law, which grants the authorities sweeping powers to hold defendants without bail, it is unlikely that he will win release.
The law also shifts the legal landscape for Mr. Lai. Defendants can be tried in mainland China, where the legal system is significantly more opaque than in Hong Kong.
Even if Mr. Lai is tried in Hong Kong, the security law empowers the city’s chief executive, who is selected by Beijing, to appoint special judges, and the trial can be held behind closed doors.
Mr. Lai is scheduled to appear in court on Saturday, the police said.
Mr. Lai and his newspaper, Apple Daily, have been vocal supporters of the antigovernment protests that roiled Hong Kong for months last year and posed the most serious challenge to Beijing’s rule over the territory in decades.
Mr. Lai’s activism has made him a frequent target of the Chinese Communist Party, which has denounced him officially and through pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong.
“By openly colluding with external forces to endanger national security, Jimmy Lai and a small handful of other anti-China troublemakers in Hong Kong have purposely undermined Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability and its citizens’ fundamental well-being,” a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry’s commissioner in Hong Kong said in a statement in August.
The pro-democracy protests have been subdued this year by social distancing rules, aggressive police tactics and the new security law. Last month, Beijing dealt a blow to the one of the last remaining venues for political opposition in Hong Kong when it authorized the removal of four pro-democracy lawmakers from the city’s legislature.
The pro-democracy camp protested the move by resigning from the legislature en masse.