HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's most powerful critic of Beijing, a brash media tycoon whose home was raided by anti-corruption officers, said on Friday he won't be cowed by efforts to silence him ahead of a crunch decision this weekend on the city's political future.
Jimmy Lai, 65, a self-made millionaire smuggled into Hong Kong by boat as a child, has become one of the most influential magnates in greater China, standing up to an increasingly assertive China and pumping millions of his own money into a movement seeking democracy for the former British colony.
His role as the main financial patron of the pro-democracy movement since the territory's 1997 handover to Communist Party rulers in China has come under growing scrutiny.
Lai stood by on Thursday as his home in an affluent avenue in Hong Kong's Kowloon district was raided, a move some observers said was part of an intensifying campaign to smother pro-democracy forces seeking universal suffrage.
"There's no doubt it only makes us more determined. But that's all I can tell," he told Reuters. "We will slug it through. Whatever happens, it only toughens us up."
The early-morning raid came days before Beijing is expected to rule it will limit 2017 elections for Hong Kong's leader to a handful of pro-Beijing candidates, a move likely to trigger a showdown with pan-democrats who are planning an "Occupy Central" campaign to shut down the city's main business district.
The standing committee of China's parliament, the National People's Congress, is due to announce its decision on Sunday.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) said in a statement it had searched three homes and the office of a lawmaker as part of a bribery investigation.
A copy of a search warrant seen by Reuters gave permission for the ICAC to look for items including bank and electronic records related to payments or donations made by Lai to officials of the centre left Labour Party.
Over the 17 years since Hong Kong returned to China, Beijing has ratcheted up its control despite promises to grant the city a high degree of autonomy and eventual universal suffrage.
INTENTION TO "SCARE AWAY TYCOONS"
"Jimmy is more or less the only donor (for the democratic movement)," said Martin Lee, one of the founders of the main opposition Democratic Party.
"The intended effect (of the raid) is to scare all tycoons from giving money to the democrats, and secondly to scare people away from Occupy Central, and also distract our focus on democracy and at the same time blacken the democratic camp."
Prominent pro-establishment figure and former Hong Kong security chief Regina Ip, however, said she was confident the anti-corruption force was independent.
"People shouldn't read too much into the timing. There were complaints made and we are talking about large sums of money," Ip said, adding that any charges would play out in a fully transparent and fair legal system.
Lai owns Hong Kong-based media company Next Media Ltd <0282.HK>, which publishes Next Magazine and the popular pro-democracy Apple Daily tabloid, Hong Kong's second-most popular daily with a circulation of around 190,000.
Apple Daily says its anti-establishment stance has resulted in advertising boycotts, its website has been repeatedly hacked and tens of thousands of his newspapers have been torched at distribution points on several occasions by unknown parties.
Lai, in the latest edition of his Next Magazine, lashed out at what he described as "state-level" hacking that gained access to his banking records and other personal documents.
Lai says the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, spurred him to switch from the garment business to newspapers and once dubbed former Chinese premier Li Peng "a son of a turtle egg", a highly offensive Chinese term, for his role in the killings.
Lai founded the casual wear brand Giordano in 1981.
Apple Daily has pursued an activist agenda since the handover and is expected to play a vital role in rallying public support for the Occupy Central campaign.
"Real democracy, that's what we're fighting for," said Lai.
(Additional reporting by Yimou Lee, Clare Baldwin and Diana Chan; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Nick Macfie)