Hong Kong, China: Shares in the parent company of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper quadrupled on Thursday as trading in them resumed following an eight-day suspension.
Dealing in Next Digital was halted last week after city authorities said they were freezing the assets of its jailed owner Jimmy Lai, using a sweeping new national security law.
But when trading resumed Thursday the share price skyrocketed from its previous close of HK$0.19 to hit HK$0.80 before paring the gains to HK$0.36 mid-morning.
The group saw a similar — and volatile — surge in its share price in August when police first arrested Lai, as ordinary Hong Kongers snapped up the firm to show support for the embattled Apple Daily.
The 73-year-old media tycoon has long been a thorn in Beijing’s side for his caustic newspaper and unapologetic support for democracy.
Apple Daily, the city’s most popular tabloid, has staunchly backed Hong Kong’s pro-democracy cause, including the huge and often violent protests that swept the international financial hub in 2019.
In a filing on Wednesday announcing its plan to start trading again the following day, Next Digital said some HK$500 million (US$65 million) of Lai’s assets had been frozen, including his 71 percent stake in the company.
The freeze did not extend to Next Digital itself or its subsidiaries, the company said.
A restaurant in Wan Chai distributed a hundred copies of #AppleDaily, which has come under fire for its pro-democracy stance. “Apple Daily should be applauded for their perserverance in defending #HongKong‘s freedoms, even under oppression”, said the owner.#AppleDailyENG pic.twitter.com/ewugnHSeyX
— Apple Daily HK 蘋果日報 (@appledaily_hk) May 19, 2021
It was the first time Hong Kong authorities have used the national security law to freeze shares of a listed company’s majority shareholder — a step that could cause further jitters for investor sentiment in the city.
Next Digital said its unaudited bank and cash balances were approximately HK$521.4 million at the end of March.
“Existing working capital of the group will remain sufficient for at least 18 months from April 1 2021 without additional funding from Mr. Lai,” the filing said.
The asset freeze comes as Chinese authorities roll out a relentless and successful campaign to silence dissent in Hong Kong.
Lai is currently serving a 14-month jail sentence for taking part in two of the 2019 protests.
He is also charged with “colluding with foreign forces” — one of the new national security crimes — for allegedly advocating for foreign sanctions.
More than 100 people — including some of the city’s most prominent democracy activists — have been arrested under the law.
Most of those charged are refused bail and those who are convicted face up to life in jail.