Apple Daily’s shutdown marks the end of Hong Kong’s run as a free press haven

The last headline: “Hong Kongers bid a painful farewell in the rain: ‘We support Apple Daily’”
The last headline: “Hong Kongers bid a painful farewell in the rain: ‘We support Apple Daily’”
Image: Reuters/Lam Yik
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At close to midnight on Wednesday (June 23), Lam Man-chung, the executive editor in chief of pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, signed off on the last edition of the paper, ending its 26 years of operation in the city.

Amid a round of applause from colleagues, as well as camera flashes from outlets waiting to capture the publication’s final moments, Lam and associate publisher Chan Pui-man stood in the atrium of the newsroom, waving and bowing to crowds outside.

“One of my deepest feelings is that while Apple Daily managed to speak for Hong Kongers from their position, helping them to express their real thoughts, seeing Hong Kong people come here today to support us is already my happiest moment,” Lam told local news outlet Citizen News. Outside of the newspaper’s headquarters in Tseung Kwan O, a suburban area of Hong Kong, hundreds of citizens gathered to pay their respects to one of the city’s last remaining platforms for criticism.

“There was a melancholic vibe,” said Geoffrey Cheng, a Hong Konger who was present at around 10pm that night to “witness history.” According to a video Cheng shot at the scene, people were chanting slogans including “Hong Kongers, support Apple.” Staff still in the building waved their mobile phones with the flashlights on at the crowd. Some in the crowd waved back with their phones to show solidarity, according to a video from the Hong Kong Free Press.

Across the city, there were long queues in front of newspaper stalls to get a copy of Apple Daily’s last print run of 1 million copies—all of which sold out, according to the paper.

What losing Apple Daily means

For many in the city, the fate of Apple Daily is the clearest sign yet that Hong Kong’s era as a free-press haven is drawing to a close, a testament to the sweeping power of the year-old national security law Beijing imposed on the city after months of protests. The demonstrations began initially to oppose a controversial extradition proposal, but broadened into criticism of Beijing’s growing influence on the autonomous territory.

For decades, the city’s free access to the internet, and relatively transparent judicial and corporate registry system, allowed journalists to enjoy the kind of freedoms that were out of reach for those in mainland China, and to deliver hard-hitting coverage of the country. Over the years, journalists in Hong Kong revealed the overseas family fortunes of Chinese Communist Party leaders, and the decision of Chinese president Xi Jinping to thwart Ant Group’s IPO, for example. But after rounding up political figures under the national security law, the authorities appear to be increasingly turning their attention to journalism.

In recent months new management was put in place at public broadcaster RTHK, which reported critically on the role of police during the protests. Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, has faced a series of charges relating to allegations of unlawful assembly, fraud, and most recently, violating the national security law. Then, in a dramatic escalation last week, hundreds of police raided Apple Daily’s offices and arrested five executives, including editor in chief Ryan Law, alleging that coverage calling for foreign sanctions on Beijing over its actions in Hong Kong amounted to conspiracy to collude with “foreign forces,” a crime under the security law. At first, the paper vowed to press on, but yesterday police arrested its lead opinion writer. Hours later, the paper announced it would close down after one final run, unable to fund its operations or pay staff after authorities also froze assets of around HK$18 million ($2.3 million).

“Apple Daily…gives thanks for the love and support from its readers, subscribers, advertisers, and Hongkongers in the past 26 years,” said the paper’s announcement. “Good-bye, and take care.”

Apple Daily’s 26-year run

The flourishing of Apple Daily in Hong Kong was not happenstance. After all, Hong Kong’s status as a news hub in Asia began long before the launch of the newspaper: It dates back to the 19th century, when the region first became a British colony.

“Free from the social and political constraints operative under Chinese jurisdiction, Chinese newspapers had more room to grow than in any other locality in China,” Hong Kong historian Elizabeth Sinn wrote in a 2002 paper (pdf) on the evolution of Chinese media in the city. The first batch of Chinese newspapers, including the Zhongwai Xinbao, emerged following the steps of English-language papers during that century, providing a vehicle for ordinary citizens to comment on public affairs.

Hong Kong’s status as a center of trade also helped it grow as hub for news outlets, with merchants relying on a supply of business news to inform their activities and to promote policies and reforms, according to Sinn. In 1903, the city’s best known English-language paper today, the South China Morning Post, was founded as a collaboration by Chinese-Australian Tse Tsan-tai, an activist against China’s last dynasty, and British journalist Alfred Cunningham. (Owned at one time by Rupert Murdoch, in 2016 SCMP was acquired by the Alibaba group.)

When the Chinese and British governments started negotiations to return Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in the 1980s, the city’s media outlets started to adopt liberal journalistic professionalism as the local economy took off and people demanded higher quality news content. With the approaching of the 1997 deadline for the “handover” of Hong Kong from the UK to Beijing, some outlets also took an increasingly pro-China stance.

Into this press environment, Apple Daily arrived on June 20, 1995, a little over 26 years to the day of its shutdown, and just two years before the territory’s return to Hong Kong sovereignty.

According to CNN, Lai, who founded Hong Kong-based apparel retailer Giordano in the 1980s, applied a similar philosophy to his newspaper as he did to the clothing chain: Be cheap and eye-popping. Early on, Lai faced economic consequences for this pivot to being a media baron. After he used some choice words for Communist Party official Li Peng, known outside China as “the butcher of Beijing” in a 1994 opinion column in a sister publication, he faced an economic boycott of his business in the mainland and troubles with a planned IPO.

It isn’t easy to give a comprehensive sense of the Apple Daily flavor to readers outside of Hong Kong, given its particular blend of sensationalism, gossip, investigation, and advocacy. It could perhaps be considered a cousin to BuzzFeed, home to both listicles and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, though Apple Daily’s heart-on-its-sleeve political advocacy is more in line with European press traditions than US ones.

Galileo Cheng, social affairs executive for the Hong Kong Catholic Institution Staff Association, who documented the queues for Apple Daily’s last print run last night, said he began reading the publication as a student for its tabloidy entertainment content and photos that had a strong attraction, as he put it, for the “young male.” But he stuck with it over the years for its strong investigative and court reporting that resulted in revelations about wrongdoing by powerful people.

The paper played a key role in innovating and pushing the city’s old-school papers to realize there was a new generation of readers to cater to—and many in the crowd outside the newspaper’s headquarters last night were under 40. Apple Daily’s focus on spot news and large colorful photos, and later video, pushed even staid publications to think beyond pages of “words and words,” said Cheng, calling the paper’s closure “a huge blow to civil society.”

Tom Grundy, editor in chief of online news outlet the Hong Kong Free Press, summed up Apple Daily this way: “[It] was the city’s best-selling newspaper, it was a sensational tabloid, a source of quality investigative journalism, a campaigning platform that printed protest signs, and a thorn in the side of the authorities for a quarter of a century.”

Pushing back on Beijing

In 2003, ahead of major protests against a proposed security law in Hong Kong, Apple Daily distributed cartoon stickers calling for the ouster of the city’s chief executive at the time, Tung Chee-hwa, while a sister publication depicted the leader getting a pie in the face. Along with its huge pro-democracy posters on big protest days, these were just a few of the many ways the paper frequently blurred the lines between journalism and advocacy.

For some, Apple Daily’s ability to continue being that thorn in post-handover Hong Kong was a way to gauge China’s fidelity to the “one country, two systems” model. Proposed by leader Deng Xiaoping as the principle underpinning the handover, Beijing guaranteed the city would keep its freedoms and free market system for at least 50 years, or until 2047.

A decade after the handover, the media scene continued to flourish, becoming home to a range of domestic and international outlets. But a 2007 analysis by Hong Kong journalism professors Joseph Chan and Francis Lee suggested that China’s process of economic cooptation was far advanced. “Hong Kong media ownership has increasingly been taken over by various pro-China business people who share similar backgrounds and business interests,” they noted. “Only the two newspapers without any economic or political affiliation with China do not give the Beijing authorities special consideration when reporting news.”

In other words, Apple Daily, owned by Lai under parent company Next Media (now known as Next Digital), continued to do its thing.

“The reason why I came back to Hong Kong to work in hedge funds is that the city was vibrant then, the first few years after 1997, and could tolerate a pro-democracy newspaper, which shows that the Deng Xiaoping model still works,” said Edward Chin, a hedge fund manager and a long-time columnist for Apple Daily.

White terror

In the face of the latest developments, some in Hong Kong are taking a stoic stance.

“I refuse to say that this is the end of Hong Kong, or the end of freedom of expression, or freedom of the press,” says Emily Lau, a former member of the city’s Legislative Council, and at one time a journalist who quizzed Margaret Thatcher on the terms of the handover. “We have to struggle; we have to carry on.”

But many journalists—and future journalists—are gripped by foreboding about the future, borrowing the phrase “white terror” from the dark period of martial law in Taiwan between 1949 and 1987, when the Kuomintang dictatorship detained and tortured scores of dissidents for their supposed anti-government stance. The term has been used often in Hong Kong since the 2019 protests to describe the fear people feel from Beijing’s tightening grip.

“I think there is no space for normal journalistic jobs under this dictatorship,” says a former Apple Daily reporter who resigned in May. “Under this regime, one choice is to work for the government’s mouthpieces, the other is to still report the truth, but the latter would be at the risk of being arrested. [Hence], I don’t plan to work in journalism again.”

Another journalist expressed worry that other recently established independent news outlets, such as Stand News, could become the next target of the government, and that there would be more self-censorship in outlets. “Journalists, especially those working on investigative journalism, have criticized the government frequently. I think they need to be prepared for any sudden arrest or prosecution now, and think about whether they could handle [such pressure],” the reporter, who works for a local media outlet, told Quartz.

A journalism student studying in a local university said he might look for work opportunities overseas, worrying that he could be prosecuted for expressing opinions different from the official stance.

The feeling of fear and uncertainty could stretch far beyond the media industry. “Banks will be wary that analysts’ reports critical of Chinese politics or state companies could cause them trouble. It is a small jump from the move against Apple Daily, its assets frozen by a court order, to assaults on bigger or foreign businesses,” the Financial Times wrote in an editorial.

With the closure of the newspaper, the assumed layer of protection granted by Hong Kong’s special status from other mainland cities seems to have been removed for businesses—even those not involved in news. The fact that the government effectively forced Next Digital, the Hong Kong-listed parent of Apple Daily, to shutter its core business is eyebrow-raising in a place that purports to be an international financial center, a legal professional told Quartz.

Apple Daily's social media account is gone from Twitter on June 24, 2021.
Apple Daily’s social media account is gone from Twitter on June 24, 2021.
Image: Screenshot/Twitter

Though Apple Daily’s social media accounts have gone blank, and visitors to its home page today were met with the announcement of its demise instead of articles, the title will live on—just not in Hong Kong.

Apple Daily’s sister publication in Taiwan stopped print operations in May due to financial difficulties, but its website is operating as usual, churning out tabloid-style coverage about society and politics in Taiwan, which made the switch to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. Apple Daily’s afterlife in Taiwan may add fuel to the belief that the self-governing island is rising as a new press hub in Asia after a flurry of international outlets kicked out of China started basing their correspondents there. The events of this week may lead to more such moves.

As such, the Party seems to have not only turned a tabloid into a spiritual icon for Hong Kongers, but also helped cede some of Hong Kong’s global influence.

Tripti Lahiri contributed to this post.