With the demise of Apple Daily, what is the future of media in Hong Kong?
Apple Daily was a tabloid-style newspaper published in Hong Kong from 1995-2021, and was one of the best-selling Chinese language papers in HK. After authorities froze the assets of the company, Apple Daily was unable to pay wages and had to cease operations. The Drum finds out what this means for the future of media in Hong Kong.
Apple Daily was established in 1995 in Hong Kong, and since its birth the paper has always been a voice for freedom and democracy by being regularly critical of Beijing and China’s central government.
As a response to the protests and demonstrations of 2019 in Hong Kong calling for independence, China’s newly-introduced National Security Law came into force on June 30 2020, making any acts of sedition, subversion or inciting hatred against the Chinese or local government illegal.
The pretext for this was to quell demonstrations, sometimes violent, that had been taking place since late 2019 over a proposed extradition law. While it was not entirely clear when the law came into effect, many believed that it could not be grandfathered and would only be used against future activities.
The central government in Beijing had been trying to implement a national security law since 2003, but mass demonstrations had led to plans being withdrawn.
On June 17, Hong Kong police raided Apple Daily’s offices and arrested five senior members of staff under the National Security Law. Their warrant cited articles that were published appealing for sanctions against Hong Kong, and collusion with a foreign country to endanger national security.
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At the same time bank accounts were frozen, leaving little access to funds to keep the newspaper open. With most of the senior leadership in police custody and no funds to continue operations, Apple Daily Hong Kong ceased publication on June 24, the day they sold over 1m copies.
Why is Apple Daily being targeted now?
Apple Daily played a prominent role during the demonstrations in 2019, where it documented cases of police brutality and police collusion with triads during violent clashes in Yuen Long between pro and anti-government supporters.
It called on governments around the world to sanction Hong Kong and its leaders for breaches of the Sino British Joint Declaration (which governed the conditions of the handover in 1997) and the Basic Law, as well as human rights violations.
A marketer who spoke to The Drum under the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from the Chinese government says the closure of Apple Daily is symbolic of the transition that was mapped out as part of the hand-back from the United Kingdom to China.
The marketer notes the timeline may be faster than many in the pro-democracy group may like, but the fact is that the process is inevitable.
“The UK provided Hong Kong with a false hope of promising to protect their democratic rights, yet under UK rule it was a colonial government only with the appearance of local democratic representation under the colonial rulers,” says the marketer.
“Now China is applying the same rules they apply in all of their territories, where the media must reflect and support the party line or be removed from the conversation.”
Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, as well as the fashion chain Giordano, was a regular attendee of the June 4 vigils and other demonstrations. After the enactment of the National Security Law, a number of high-profile democracy activists were arrested for participation in the August 2019 march, which saw an estimated 1.7 million people take to the streets to demonstrate against a proposed law that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China.
Among those arrested and ultimately found guilty were Lai, along with 82-year-old Martin Lee, the so-called founder of the Hong Kong democracy movement.
Another marketer who spoke to The Drum under the condition of anonymity notes that while Apple Daily was widely known for its local gossip news, it had since its inception been a voice of the people, regularly publishing articles challenging government actions on many issues, including housing policy, healthcare and welfare, as well as corruption.
“It was a Sunday morning staple read with ‘yam cha’ (tea) across Hong Kong as it was the broadsheet tabloid that embodied the Hong Kong spirit. And it was regularly the go-to source of local news for Hong Kong’s English language press, who would regularly carry stories a day after they had broken in Apple Daily,” the marketer says.
Sam Olsen, co-founder of MetisAsia and author of WhatChinaWants, points out Apple Daily also reduced the market share of the existing Chinese language newspapers by aggressively undercutting them and taking on a more salacious tone.
“It showed by its success that there were substantial numbers of people in the territory who were pro-democracy, and this has helped to encourage more political discussion in the media,” he tells The Drum.
Apple Daily’s advertiser base was very broad as many brands advertised in the newspaper, whether print or digital. These advertisers came from various industries such as financial services, retail, CPG, healthcare, fashion and even luxury brands.
Advertisers who bought inventory from Apple Daily also tended to support the pro-democracy movement, or had clients that were supportive of the pro-democracy movement, and in particular the belief in a more independent Hong Kong.
Future of press freedom in Hong Kong
It looks like the days of a free press in Hong Kong are over, one of the marketers The Drum spoke to says, as Hong Kong’s newly-appointed chief of police recently sent out a stern warning that fake news would not be tolerated, and should a law be brought in to make it illegal, they would make good use of it.
A number of international journalists have also reported being denied work visas, forcing them to relocate to other Asian countries.
Alibaba-owned The South China Morning Post, which has always had a strong sense of quality journalism, has been careful not to play with the lion’s tail – particularly in recent months given Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma’s own situation.
Other HK-based local language newspapers are seeing journalists question whether they will continue to write, with a number of regular op-ed contributors, particularly from academic circles, quitting their columns.
For example, another pro-democracy media outlet StandNews is preparing to be next in line as the government looks to quash any possible voices of dissent. While the paper has insisted it will carry on publishing, many in the outlet are carefully considering their own personal positions.
It has ceased accepting any sponsorships or subscriptions in the view that it has to shutter operations, with its finances allowing the paper to operate for at least the next year. Six of its eight board members have also resigned.
One of the marketers The Drum spoke to says: “Having spent more than two decades living in the city, and with a wife and daughters who are all Hong Kong Chinese, I think it is inevitable that the next few years will see the very soul of Hong Kong change and this once vibrant city will be suffocated.
“It could have been the jewel in China’s crown, but sadly its importance on the world’s political and economic stage will now wane.”