In recent weeks, I’ve read one example after another of a heartbreaking new genre of farewell journalism from some of Hong Kong’s most prominent figures. They cite different reasons for stopping. One says his contract might not be renewed; another that he’s too “tired and feeble” to continue; a third cites the growing number of things that are “completely unspeakable”. The truth is in the year since Beijing imposed national security legislation upon Hong Kong, writing has simply become too perilous.
This has now become abundantly clear as the territory’s most outspoken newspaper, Apple Daily, shut down under political pressure from the government. Despite being one of the most popular newspapers in Hong Kong, it was unable to continue after the government froze its assets. Its founder and chairman, Jimmy Lai, is in prison on national security charges and for a welter of public order offences. Six staff, including the lead opinion writer, were arrested on suspicion of collusion with foreign powers to endanger national security. Police say the offence lay in more than 30 articles calling for foreign sanctions against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, in violation of the national security law.
The end of Apple Daily marks a new era for Hong Kong’s once freewheeling media. The paper’s role as an outlier was abundantly clear on 1 July 2020, the day after the national security legislation came into effect. Apple Daily was the only paper to run a front-page story about the law; every other newspaper devoted their prime real estate to a full-page advert placed by the government hailing the legislation. Through such means, the erstwhile fourth estate has been transformed into propaganda outlets whose role is to guide public opinion. To guarantee their loyalty, the ownership of local news organisations is quietly changing hands to pro-Beijing businessmen.
For the past year, Apple Daily had continued to defy the authorities with pro-democracy messages and biting columns. Public support was clear; after Lai’s arrest, the company’s stock price surged 1,000% in two days. When authorities took down the Lennon walls carrying notes of popular protest, these were replicated in the pages of Apple Daily by readers who bought advertising space. After protest marches were outlawed, buying Apple Daily became one of the sole permitted acts of resistance.
Now Apple Daily’s fate has become an object lesson in non-compliance, underlining the message that only silence can guarantee self-preservation under the national security legislation. The global reach of the legislation extends its chilling impact overseas, while Beijing’s surveillance of cyberspace means that many Hongkongers feel unsafe expressing their views online.
In recent days, I’ve received distraught messages from friends. One wondered whether it was safe to post to Facebook stories, another weeped down the phone that there were no words left to write. That sentiment was echoed by the chairman of Apple’s parent company, veteran journalist Ip Yut-kin, who simply said: “I have tens of thousands of words in my heart, but I am speechless at the moment.” The national security legislation’s ambit is vague, making Hong Kong a far less predictable environment than mainland China itself.
The authorities’ retrospective use of the law means its impact stretches backwards in time. One victim is the entire Apple Daily archive, which has disappeared overnight from the internet; 26 years of journalism were wiped out in an act that also affects the collective memories of Hongkongers, who have long spent their weekend yum cha sessions sharing Apple Daily articles with their families.
One moment illustrating how swiftly Hong Kong’s media is being brought to heel was the sacking of the beloved political satirist Tsang Chi-ho last week. His TV programme, Headliner, was cancelled in June last year after a 30-year run, but he continued to host a radio show. Last week, he was sacked after coming off air, providing an unceremonious end to 21 years of employment for the government broadcaster, RTHK. The outspoken democracy advocate said he suspected his political views were the reason. He posted a picture of his empty metal locker on Facebook with the message: “Everyone. I’ve already left RTHK. Unfortunately I had no chance to tell the audience goodbye.”
There were six days between the freezing of Apple Daily’s funds and the last issue rolling off the presses. A million copies were printed for the final edition, in a clear sign of its popularity in a city of 7.5m residents. When the end came, Hongkongers flocked to the paper’s headquarters, shining their mobile phone torches towards the last journalists working in the building. Throughout the night, they queued for hours at newsstands to get their hands on the last issue. With these small vigils, Hongkongers made full use of that final window of defiance before it slammed shut for ever.