Tuesday, March 2

Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai steps down from Next Digital helm

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Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who is facing charges of endangering national security in a sweeping crackdown by Beijing on the city’s pro-democracy protesters, resigned as chairman of Next Digital Ltd. ahead of a crucial bail hearing.

Lai, 73, tendered his resignation “in order to spend more time dealing with his personal affairs,” according to a statement from the media group he founded three decades ago. He also stepped down from the position of executive director. Next Digital said Ip Yut Kin would replace him as chairman.

Shares of Next Digital, the owner of the Apple Daily newspaper that has vigorously championed the city’s protest movement, jumped as much as 25% early Wednesday in a show of support for the departing chief, before paring almost all of those gains. Such a move isn’t unusual for the stock, which surged more than 1,100% in two days back in August when Lai was arrested.

Prosecutors in Hong Kong charged Lai, a prominent critic of Beijing and local authorities, earlier this month under the national security law imposed by Beijing in June, saying he had colluded with foreigners by calling for sanctions against China. The future of Apple Daily, started by Lai in 1995, remains uncertain despite its popularity and statements that Lai’s arrest won’t hurt its operations.

Next Digital has made back-up arrangements to keep publishing Apple Daily in the event that Lai goes to prison and his assets are seized under the national security law, two people with knowledge of the company’s operations said in August, asking not to be identified citing sensitivity of the matter.

Lai, who has been frequently criticized by Chinese authorities for his support for local democratic movements, was released on bail by a Hong Kong court last week. The Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper subsequently slammed the court’s decision as “unbelievable” and warned that the case against Lai could be transferred to mainland courts under the national security law.

Hong Kong’s highest court is expected to hear the government’s request to return Lai to jail while he awaits trial on the national security charges.