‘Forbidden Fruit’: Apple Daily, Pro-Democracy Newspaper in Hong Kong, Is Forced to Close

The police also arrested an editorial writer as part of an expanding national security investigation into the newspaper that has raised concerns about free speech.

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HONG KONG — Apple Daily, a popular newspaper in Hong Kong, has long needled Beijing with its rambunctious support of pro-democracy protesters, aggressive investigations of officials and lampooning of China’s Communist Party leadership. Now China has effectively silenced the paper — and along with it, one of its most defiant critics.

Apple Daily said on Wednesday that it was closing less than a week after the police froze its accounts, raided its offices and arrested top editors, as the government’s escalating campaign against dissent takes aim at the city’s once vaunted media freedoms.

The forced closure of Apple Daily struck a blow to the unique character of the city itself. The paper churned out stories on celebrity gossip and lurid scandals, as well as hard-hitting political news and analysis, always with a decidedly antigovernment slant and an irreverence antithetical to what the Communist Party would allow in the mainland. Even in the face of advertising boycotts, assaults on its journalists and firebomb attacks, the paper persevered and thrived, remaining one of the most widely read newspapers in the city, living proof of the freedoms Hong Kong enjoyed despite its return to Chinese rule in 1997.

When antigovernment protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019, posing the greatest political challenge to Beijing in decades, Apple Daily was an unabashed supporter of the movement, even printing placards for demonstrators. But when Beijing moved to quash resistance to its rule in the city with a powerful and sweeping national security law that squeezed space for dissent, Apple Daily quickly became a key target.

“Apple Daily showed we have a vibrant society, with freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” said Emily Lau, a former pro-democracy lawmaker. “But after tomorrow, Apple Daily will be no more.”

“It shows that when the Chinese government decides to act, it can be very swift and sometimes exceedingly brutal,” Ms. Lau said.

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Ryan Law, Apple Daily’s editor in chief, left, being escorted by the police out of Next Media offices last week.Credit…Jerome Favre/EPA, via Shutterstock

First, the authorities arrested the paper’s pugnacious founder, Jimmy Lai, last year, and charged him with national security offenses that carry a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. While in detention, he was also sentenced to prison for 20 months for involvement in illegal protests.

Then last Thursday, hundreds of police officers raided the paper’s newsroom, hauling off computers, freezing its assets and arresting top editors and executives. Ryan Law, the editor in chief, and Cheung Kim-hung, chief executive of Next Digital, the paper’s parent company, were charged with conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign powers under the security law, and were denied bail.

In the days after the raid, copies of Apple Daily were snapped up by readers like Bobo Cheung, a supervisor at a small restaurant who would display them on the bistro’s window ledge and give them away to patrons.

“I didn’t think Apple Daily would become forbidden fruit,” Ms. Cheung said. “It feels like the end of an era.”

On Wednesday, the police arrested one of the paper’s journalists, Yeung Ching-kee, who wrote columns and editorials under the pen name Li Ping. Mr. Yeung could see the writing on the wall for his employer after Mr. Lai’s arrest in August. China’s Communist Party and its allies in Hong Kong “have decided to strangle Apple Daily, to kill Hong Kong’s freedom of press and freedom of speech,” Mr. Yeung wrote.

“Even when the democratic world increases the sanctioning actions toward them, they would just intensify the suppression and prosecution against Apple Daily, in the hope that they would succumb to the pressure and surrender or stop publishing,” he wrote.

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The Apple Daily newsroom last Thursday, after the raid by the police.Credit…Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Apple Daily’s identity mirrors that of its founder, Mr. Lai, who was smuggled into Hong Kong from mainland China as a boy and rose from a factory worker to become a clothing tycoon. He began to pursue publishing after China’s bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Like Mr. Lai, his scrappy newspaper, which he founded in 1995, was fixated on supporting democracy and attacking China’s Communist Party.

“I believe in the media, by delivering information, you’re actually delivering freedom,” he told The New York Times last year.

Mr. Lai angered Beijing early on by calling Li Peng, the Chinese official who ordered the 1989 crackdown, the “son of a turtle.” After that, Beijing threatened to block his clothing company, Giordano, from continuing to operate in mainland China. Forced to choose between clothing and the media, he sold his Giordano shares in 1996 to focus on the news business.

Mr. Lai’s publications matched his doggedness, pursuing celebrity gossip and political scandal with equal verve. The newspaper would often publish racy images of starlets and break news of celebrity infidelities. In its early years it even ran columns on pornography and brothel reviews, and readers complained when those offerings were scaled back.

But along with scandalous infotainment, Apple Daily also investigated local corruption, exposing how several Hong Kong officials built illegal extensions to their homes. It regularly pursued social issues like the city’s vast wealth gap and unaffordable housing. The newspaper took an active role in local politics, calling on readers to take to the streets for demonstrations and even printing posters for them to carry.

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Jimmy Lai in the newsroom of Apple Daily in August 2020.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The paper’s campaigning earned it many critics, among them Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, whose efforts as an official in 2003 to pass a local security law were in part scuppered by public resistance the newspaper had openly fanned.

“Apple Daily has done great damage to the media environment,” Ms. Ip said. “It has been sued by many people for libel, done fake stories and run malicious campaigns on people they don’t like.”

Mr. Lai, the founder, has been unapologetic about the mix of tawdry and high-minded content, comparing Apple Daily to a clothing line with many colors and styles to appeal to its customers.

As China’s attitude toward Hong Kong hardened over the past year, Mr. Lai anticipated that his paper’s days were numbered. In a guest essay for The Times in May last year, he wrote that he had long feared that the Communist Party “would grow tired not only of Hong Kong’s free press but also of its free people.”

In the months since Mr. Lai’s arrest last year, many among the paper’s reporters have felt a greater sense of urgency to chase stories.

“We don’t want to wait and die,” said Norman Choy, a features editor. “So we work even harder to explore more news, more stories, digging even deeper and deeper.”

But he said that the editors also tried to be more cautious: The paper stopped referring to the new coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus” and avoided reports that touched on sanctions on Hong Kong and China.

The pressure on the news media has been building for months, as the authorities moved to overhaul a public broadcaster and warned journalists against spreading “fake news.” On Wednesday, the first trial under the national security law opened, a case that will indicate how far the law goes in criminalizing political speech.

As the paper’s closure loomed, reporters on Apple Daily’s team of about 700 editorial and production staff have gathered, sometimes tearfully, and discussed whether to leave early to limit the risk of arrest, or stay on until the bitter end.

On the company shuttle that took them from a subway station to the newsroom, some joked that it felt like they were headed to a funeral. One reporter began drafting a letter to her parents detailing what they should do if she were to be arrested. Several worked on what they referred to as the “obituary issue,” the final print to be put out on Thursday.

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Readers rushed to newsstands to pick up copies of Apple Daily in its final days.Credit…Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the newsroom on Monday, Marco Cheung, a senior video reporter, weighed his options with his team members. The police had confiscated their hard drives during the raid, and they were worried about being arrested. The team’s editors had hoped to gather some highlights of the work the section had produced, but had no time to complete it.

A large red banner emblazoned with the words: “Colleagues, you’ve worked hard!” hung over the newsroom. As Mr. Cheung and two dozen other colleagues gathered in the office to watch a 9:30 p.m. broadcast — the show’s final episode — recapping the day’s news, some cried; others hugged. “The road ahead will be difficult,” said the anchor of the show. “We wish everyone peace.”

Packing up his desk, Mr. Cheung noticed a front-page story from the paper’s June 4, 1999, edition, marking the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, pasted on the glass divider. Gingerly, he peeled it off and gave it to a colleague.

“Is society changing too quickly or is it us that cannot keep up?” Mr. Cheung later said in an interview. “Maybe we are used to a society with free speech and we have not adjusted yet. We have not yet learned how we ought to survive, if we want to stay in Hong Kong as journalists.”

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