Lai, 73, who is known for his support of the city’s democracy movement and criticism of mainland China, was charged on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces and endangering national security, according to Hong Kong police.
He is the most high-profile person to be charged under the law, which was imposed by Beijing in June. The offense of colluding with foreign powers carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
“There is always a price to pay. I have been fighting (for democracy) throughout the years,” he said, adding that he would continue to do so because “without freedom you have nothing left.”
Earlier this month, Lai was denied bail following an arrest on separate charges of fraud. He has been in custody since then.
Lai dismissed the accusations against him as “not very serious,” saying that evidence presented to him by officers during his 40 hours in custody after being arrested included television interviews with international media, in which he called for China to be sanctioned.
Under the national security law, this could be interpreted as collusion with a foreign force.
Lai also said he did not back the Hong Kong independence movement, although he supported people’s freedom to call for it, and denied long-standing rumors that he used money from the US to subvert China.
The Hong Kong government has defended the law as necessary to bring peace and order to the city. 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.
When the law was passed, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said it would only target “an extremely small minority of offenders, while the life and property as well as various legitimate basic rights and freedoms enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of citizens will be protected.”
At least two dozen people have been arrested on a variety of charges including suspicion of violating the national security law, including one of Lai’s sons. What they have done to contravene the law since it took effect is unclear.
Joshua Wong was sentenced to 13.5 months in prison after pleading guilty to inciting and organizing an unauthorized protest outside the city’s police headquarters on June 21, 2019.
Two other activists, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, were sentenced to 10 months and seven months in prison, respectively, over the protest. Chow faced charges relating to inciting and taking part in the protest, while Lam was charged with inciting the protest.
With reporting from Jenni Marsh, Will Ripley and James Griffiths.