When Hong Kong transitioned from British to Chinese rule, the city’s media landscape entered into a chapter of change that has tested the limits of press freedom. Now, it’s teetering on the edge of a breaking point.
In the 1980s, negotiations between the two powers resulted in a clash of political influences in Hong Kong. The city enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, both before and immediately after the 1997 handover, but was also subject to a growing tide of Chinese influence.
This antagonistic mix proved to have deep repercussions on local media. As local society began to flourish during that period – and many newsrooms embraced liberal ideals of journalistic professionalism for the first time – media companies also began to embark on a noticeably pro-Beijing shift. In a 1997 analysis, editorials in five major newspapers were shown to portray the Chinese government more favorably than the local government, according to a 2007 paper by Ma Ngok. A study on 14 newspapers in 2004 also found that 55 percent of news items were pro-Beijing, whereas only 15 percent were pro-democracy.
Only one newspaper bucked the trend, with half of its news materials and 90 percent of its editorials found to be decidedly pro-democracy: Apple Daily.
Founded in 1995 by media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai, Apple Daily is a tabloid newspaper that covers everything from celebrity gossip to investigations that hold those in power accountable for their actions. The first to successfully combine sensationalist entertainment with hard news, it entered into the media scene with a splash: breaking the Newspaper Society of Hong Kong cartel’s rules by charging two dollars instead of five. Apple Daily soon became the second most circulated paper in the city, diminishing the market shares of nearly every Chinese paper. “The arrival of Apple Daily… fundamentally changed Hong Kong’s media ecology,” Ma wrote.
Most importantly, the paper is known for its critical stance toward China – one that has long made it a key target for Chinese authorities cracking down on dissent. Lai, a self-made millionaire who fled to Hong Kong from mainland China at the age of 12, reportedly founded the paper after becoming politicized by China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In August, over 200 police raided Apple Daily’s offices to investigate crimes endangering national security. Lai was arrested on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces, a breach of the national security law imposed by Beijing over Hong Kong in June, and conspiracy to defraud. After spending his 72nd birthday in jail last week, Lai was charged with one count of colluding with foreign powers for calling on overseas countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China, among other offences. He was denied bail, and the case was adjourned until April 16.
This crackdown on Apple Daily and Lai is the culmination of a decades-long saga that encapsulates the broader struggle in Hong Kong, between the city’s unwieldy press and the political forces that seek to rein it in. This past year, foreign journalists have been denied visas, authorities have limited the definition of “media representatives” to government-registered organizations and “well-known” international outlets, police have arrested a journalist who worked on a critical investigation, and a program featuring pro-democracy activist Nathan Law was pulled from the website of public broadcaster RTHK.
Since its earliest years, Apple Daily has been embroiled in controversies surrounding press freedom. In 1999, the paper was raided by officers with the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) – an incident that sparked public outrage – after a reporter was accused of bribing police officers for information. Apple Daily challenged the action in court, and the case made it to the Court of Final Appeal before the newspaper’s arguments were rejected.
During the city’s biggest political moments, the paper directly took on an advocacy role. When China first attempted to pass a national security law in 2003, more than 500,000 Hong Kongers took to the streets in protest and demanded the resignation of the city’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-Hwa. On the day of the demonstration, Apple Daily printed the front page headline: “See You on the Streets.”
In 2012, during mass protests against a proposed moral national education curriculum that critics said was akin to brainwashing, the paper again called on readers to march with the headline: “Let’s go to the street tomorrow. Defend Hong Kong’s dignity.” The pattern was repeated during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution and 2019 anti-government protests.
Last year, Apple Daily won the Hong Kong Human Rights Press Award for its coverage of Liu Xia, a poet, artist, and human rights defender who is the wife of Liu Xiaobo, a prominent Chinese human rights activist who died while serving an 11-year sentence for “subversion.”
Since its inception, the paper’s pro-democracy stance has led to advertising boycotts from China-funded enterprises, real estate developers, and more, in addition to barriers to its public listing of the Next Media Group. Newspapers have been burned and stolen, and Lai was the target of a murder plot in 2009, had the gates of his mansion rammed in 2013, and firebombs thrown at his home and Next’s headquarters in 2015, according to the New York Times. The attacks reflect the politically-divided nature of Hong Kongers, who have in recent years become increasingly split between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy lines.
Yet Apple Daily’s editorial bent also brought significant profit gains. Last year, Apple Daily’s page views doubled to an average of 8 million during protest days, and from June onwards its stock grew by 60 percent in just half a year. More than 1 million also registered to access its website, according to a report by Emily Tsang for the Reuters Institute in December.
“Since the videos launched 10 years ago, traffic to Apple Daily website has surged steadily,” Tsang wrote. “Apple Daily aimed to produce innovative clips with a humorous narrative and animation, in order to turn news into something lively and interesting… At the same time, they attracted a lot of criticism: one being that they lack objectivity, often exaggerate and sensationalize the news, and compromise accuracy.”
Indeed, Apple Daily now often functions more as a pro-democracy thought leader and has been slammed for biased reporting, for instance by focusing their coverage on police violence and underreporting violence by protesters during last year’s demonstrations. It has also waded into unethical territory. In 1998, a reporter paid a man to pose for a picture after he was photographed soliciting prostitutes in mainland China shortly after his wife’s suicide, BBC reports.
Recently, Lai also came under criticism for allying with far-right extremists and supporting President Donald Trump in the recent U.S. election. When right-wing Australian politician Avi Yemini called Black Lives Matter activists “violent thugs attacking innocent business owners” in a tweet and said that they should not be compared to Hong Kong protesters, Lai thanked him for “speaking up” for the latter.
Still, the fiercely independent paper is undoubtedly a crucial part of Hong Kong’s critical media landscape – and its supporters are willing to fight for it.
Following the Apple Daily raid and Lai’s arrest, Hong Kongers flocked to buy shares of his media company Next Digital, causing it to skyrocket more than 1,100 percent to a seven-year high and boosting the market value from HK$238 million to HK$2.9 billion. In addition to lining up to buy the physical newspaper, individuals and groups have also bought advertising space to support Apple Daily, placing ads that sometimes took on subversive tones, Quartz reports.
And yet Apple Daily’s publisher Next Digital reported a net loss of $53 million for the 2019-2020 financial year and said it would lay off 140 staff members in Taiwan, where it publishes a sister publication, according to the South China Morning Post.
Despite the escalating costs, Lai and the staff of Apple Daily have vowed to fight on. “Actually, I was thinking if I knew that I would end up like this and be imprisoned, would I have changed the way I write my life? And I realized that no, I wouldn’t,” Lai told the New York Times in a podcast released in September. “I really don’t have anything to regret.”