The Chinese Communist Party and pro-Beijing Hong Kong authorities forced Apple Daily, the last pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, to cease operation this week. The death of Apple Daily marks the end of a free press in Hong Kong, once one of the freest places on the planet.
Founded By a Refugee of Communism
The newspaper was founded 26 years ago by outspoken Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai. Born in mainland China, Lai was one of 2 million refugees who went to Hong Kong to escape communism. He worked his way up from being a laborer at a textile factory to founding a successful clothing company called Giordano, named after a New York pizza parlor.
As The Federalist noted previously: “After watching Beijing’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Lai became an advocate for democracy and an outspoken critic of Beijing.” When Giordano came out with pro-demonstrator T-shirts, the Chines government pulled its business license in mainland China.
Lai had to sell his Giordano stake, and used the money to started a new media empire, Next Media (later changed to Next Digital). Under the corporate umbrella of Next Media, Lai founded Apple Daily in 1995.
“Modeled after USA Today, Apple Daily attracted readers with big and colorful photos, populist opinions, and scandalous gossip about the rich and powerful, as well as a subscription price of two Hong Kong dollars (25 cents),” The Federalist noted earlier. “Apple Daily quickly became one of the most popular newspapers in Hong Kong, and its success helped Lai become a billionaire in 2008.”
A Voice for Democracy
Before authorities shut it down, Apple Daily was one of the strongest pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong. It offered the most favorable coverage of the city’s pro-democracy movements, from the 2014 Umbrella Movement’s demand for universal suffrage to anti-extradition protests in 2019. The newspaper also stood out for sharply criticizing the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights violations, corruption, and suppression of dissent.
The paper’s tone and coverage on these sensitive political issues reflected Lai’s political convictions. Lai was often present at the city’s many pro-democracy protests.
Beijing was so enraged it tried both overt and covert intimidation tactics to silence Lai and his newspaper. In addition to banning all of Next Media’s publications in mainland China, the CCP pushed Hong Kong businesses to pull advertising from Apple Daily. Between plunging advertising revenue and general gravitation toward digital media, Apple Daily struggled. Next Digital reported five straight years of net losses.
Besides suffering financial losses, Lai survived attacks on his life, including from assailants tossing Molotov cocktails at Lai’s home and Next Media’s headquarters. Despite the increasing danger to his safety and his financial abillity to live anywhere in the world, Lai refused to leave Hong Kong. He explained his resolve to stay in an interview: “If we don’t fight … when you lose freedom, you lose everything.”
Prosecuted under the CCP’s National Security Law
Last June, Beijing imposed a new National Security Law (NSL) on Hong Kong, criminalizing any act of what Beijing decides is secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with a foreign country or external elements. Violating the law invokes a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Each supposed “crime” and even what constitutes “national security” have been so vaguely defined, however, that a tweet supporting Hong Kong protests could land someone in jail. Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have weaponized the NSL to crack down on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists.
Last August, authorities arrested Lai — along with his two sons and several Next Media employees — for “foreign collusion” under the new security law. Additionally, Hong Kong police raided and stole materials from Apple Daily’s newsroom. Lai, his sons, and the employees were later released on bail.
But on April 16, alongside other long-time activists (including 82-year-old Martin Lee), the 73-year-old Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison on a trumped-up charge of participating in an unauthorized assembly. It was reported that Lai is still facing six other charges, including two under the NSL that could carry a life sentence.
The day after Lai’s sentencing, Apple Daily published Lai’s handwritten letter from the prison, which said: “It is our responsibility as journalists to seek justice. As long as we are not blinded by unjust temptations, as long as we do not let evil get its way through us, we are fulfilling our responsibility.”
Closing the Last Free Press in Hong Kong
Unfortunately, the authorities have quickly worked to dismantle Apple Daily. Last week, Hong Kong police arrested five top executives of the newspaper — including Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law and Chief Executive Cheung Kim-hung — and raided their homes.
These executives were accused of publishing more than 30 articles calling for foreign sanctions against the governments of Hong Kong and Beijing. The NSL considers this colluding with foreign forces, even though the law is not supposed to be retroactive. Still, these executives were denied bail and could face life sentences.
Police also raided the newsroom with a blanket warrant to seize any journalistic materials — from computers to lists of contacts and sources — which means anyone who was interviewed by the newspaper or provided sensitive information is now in danger too. In addition, Hong Kong authorities froze all the newspaper’s accounts and assets, evaporating the funds for continuing to pay payroll and overhead. Consequently, the newspaper and its online edition ceased operations on Wednesday, and most of its employees have resigned.
Apple Daily was the last newspaper in Hong Kong to support the city’s pro-democracy movement, provide a forum for dissenting voices, and call out aggressions committed by the city’s pro-Beijing authorities and their CCP masters. Its shutdown marks the death of press freedom in Hong Kong. All the papers left are propaganda machines of the party, and they will never hold the city’s authorities nor Beijing accountable.
Without a free press, Hong Kong is just another authoritarian state ruled by the CCP, with no free speech and no one to hold the government accountable. No wonder dictators treat the free press as “the first enemy of dictatorship,” in the words of Fidel Castro.
A Warning to the World
As we witness Hong Kong’s descent, we must learn a painful lesson. The lack of western outrage over Hong Kong’s return to CCP control was based on a naive and delusional assumption that the city’s freedom and prosperity — and the west’s economic engagement with communist China — would influence the CCP to gradually embrace liberal values.
The west must finally wake up to the true nature of the CCP, a party that is deeply hostile to democratic values and will crack down on any attempt to promote such values in China. Under the CCP’s rule, China will never become one of us. The CCP has taken advantage of the past 30 years of economic engagement to become the most powerful authoritarian state on the dime of the west’s economic decline.
The CCP promised to maintain Hong Kong’s freedom for 50 years, a promise it never intended to keep. Only 24 years after Hong Kong was officially returned to its control, the CCP discarded its treaty like a piece of useless paper.
Any western government that still works with the CCP must ask: Given the CCP’s record on Hong Kong, why should we trust the party to fulfill any commitment it makes? And is it really wise for our own prosperity and security to continue empowering a political party bent on destroying the values we cherish?