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Apple Daily was a light that won't be extinguished

This blog is authored by Mark L. Clifford, President of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong (CFHK) Foundation and a former member of the board of directors of Next Digital, parent company of Apple Daily.


Three years ago, as the presses rolled for the last time at Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Apple Daily, supporters thronged the newspaper’s headquarters, cheering on the staff, their mobile phone flashlights beaming support for a free press and defiance of the government.


Tens of thousands of other Hong Kongers lined up at newsstands and convenience stores in the early morning hours of June 24, 2021, to buy copies of that last edition, knowing that the light of a free press was being extinguished in Hong Kong, a critical foundation of freedom that thousands of journalists at the newspaper had fought for over the course of three decades.


People line up to buy the final edition of Apple Daily. Photo Credit: Ivan Abreu/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

 

When Jimmy Lai founded Apple Daily in 1995, he knew there would be a market for his pro-democracy newspaper. He also knew he risked the wrath of the Chinese communist authorities by embarking on this endeavor. Beijing had already forced him to step down from the popular Giordano retail clothing chain he had founded. Thin-skinned communist leaders had been angered by his biting columns in Next, a magazine he launched after Beijing’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, to fight for Hong Kong’s freedom. 

 

Even Lai could not have imagined at the time how important Apple Daily would be to Hong Kong’s democracy movement. After China took over the former British colony in 1997, China rigged the rules to systematically deny power to the pro-democracy politicians. Apple Daily and Next became the voice of the opposition. They broke scandal after scandal, holding government officials and corporate executives to account. They famously published what became known as Lexusgate, revealing that Finance Secretary Antony Leung bought a new car just weeks before raising taxes on car purchases, saving himself tens of thousands of dollars.

 

In 2003, Lai and his publications nurtured the opposition to national security legislation and turned out 500,000 people in protest. The government shelved the bill, only managing to pass it in 2024 once Apple Daily had been shut and the opposition decapitated. In 2014, Apple Daily acted as a cheerleader for the Umbrella Movement and its 79-day occupation of the financial district. Lai joined thousands of other Hong Kongers in a vain effort to push for more democracy in the face of communist Chinese intransigence.

 

In 2019, Lai and his journalists led the opposition to an extradition bill that would have made Hong Kong businessmen and ordinary citizens subject to extradition across the mainland Chinese border and prosecution in its communist party-controlled legal system.

 

Apple Daily and its journalists never backed down from their commitment to transparency, accountability, and democracy. Even after the imposition of the National Security Law in June 2020, Lai and his team continued to report, much as they had for the previous quarter-century. An August 2020 raid on the newsroom by 250 police that saw Lai and senior executives taken away by police didn’t stop the newspaper’s gutsy reporting. This laudable refusal to betray their principles and engage in self-censorship in the end forced communist authorities to show their hand. 


Hong Kong police raided the Apple Daily headquarters and arrested Jimmy Lai on August 10, 2020. Picture: Bloomberg

 

Even the jailing of Lai at the end of 2020 didn’t prompt Apple Daily and its journalists to quit. They published his defiant prison letter just before his sentencing for civil disobedience in April 2021. In June 2021, 500 police again raided Apple Daily headquarters, once more taking away senior executives. Secretary for Security John Lee, who is now Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Chief Executive,  wrote the board of directors that he was freezing the company’s bank accounts because he suspected the newspaper had violated the national security law. Three years on, those charges are yet to be proven.

 

I was a member of the board of directors of Apple Daily’s parent company, and, left with no access to our bank accounts to pay for paper, ink, the electricity or telephone bills, let alone staff salaries, there was no option but to shut the newspaper.

 

Today, Jimmy Lai is undergoing a national security law trial before handpicked judges, unprotected by a jury trial and denied access to the lawyer of his choice – China’s promises to Hong Kongers notwithstanding. The case could see him put behind bars for life. Six of his colleagues, all of whom have pled guilty and yet have remained jailed for the past three years, are being held as hostages until after the completion of the trial.

 

Three years ago, the supporters who shone their lights outside Apple Daily’s headquarters knew that authorities wanted to extinguish the flame of freedom. Three years ago, Hong Kongers bought a record one million copies of Apple daily; today, simply possessing a single copy of the newspaper could bring prosecution, a reflection of how Hong Kong’s freedoms have disappeared. Yet three years later Hong Kong people fight on, if more often in their hearts than in public, knowing that one day they will win the freedom that is rightfully theirs.


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