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Why Beijing isn’t worried about the consequences of closing Apple Daily

June 24, 2021, 11:44 AM UTC

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Apple Daily, the irreverent tabloid that was Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper, is no more.

The paper ceased operations Thursday. Locals gathered outside Apple Daily‘s headquarters late into Wednesday evening to mourn its demise, waving smartphone flashlights to bid the paper an emotional farewell. At midnight, the paper scrubbed all editorial content from its website. By 1 a.m. Hong Kongers were queueing in the rain to buy the paper’s final edition.

For its last run, the paper printed 1 million copies, more than six times its usual circulation. Demand was brisk. At some newsstands, lines were hundreds deep.

Apple Daily‘s closure follows the arrests last week of its editor-in-chief Ryan Law and four other executives on charges of violating a strict national security law adopted by Hong Kong last year. In that operation, police mounted a citywide raid, citing more than 30 Apple Daily reports advocating for foreign sanctions against Hong Kong or mainland China officials as evidence that leaders of the tabloid had colluded with foreign forces. They stormed the homes of Law, Apple Daily‘s digital director, and associate publisher, as well as the CEO and chief financial officer of the paper’s parent company, Next Digital. A phalanx of 500 police descended on the offices of Next Digital to search and seize evidence.

Those arrests marked the first time Hong Kong authorities have deemed published opinions a crime under the security law. Yesterday police arrested senior columnist Yeung Ching-kee. Apple Daily‘s founder, self-made tycoon Jimmy Lai, who joined in many of the 2019 pro-democracy marches, was arrested on security charges in February.

What sealed Apple Daily‘s doom was a government order to freeze the bank accounts of three affiliated companies, leaving the paper with no way to collect payments from vendors, pay employees, or finance operations.

British foreign secretary Dominic Raab decried the tabloid’s closure as a “chilling blow to freedom of expression in Hong Kong,” and evidence that authorities were using the national security law “to curtail freedoms and punish dissent rather than keep public order.”

A spokesman for the European Union said the paper’s fate “clearly shows how the national security law imposed by Beijing is being used to stifle press and the free expression of ideas”—a development the EU deemed “counter to Hong Kong’s aspirations as a business hub.”

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam dismissed western criticism of the paper’s forced closure. On Tuesday, she defended the arrests as a necessary deterrent to other media.

Chinese media branded Apple Daily “secessionist.” As the state-owned Global Times put it: “While some foreign journalists and observers lamented the closure of Apple Daily on social media, claiming the matter as an ‘end of an era,’ Chinese experts said it’s indeed the end of an era when foreign proxies and secessionist forces meddling in China’s internal affairs in instigating the color revolution in Hong Kong exit the political life for good.”

Foreign Policy‘s James Palmer, in his China Brief, argues that Apple Daily‘s closure will spread fear not only to other media outlets, but other sectors. “The impact of the closure goes far beyond journalism in Hong Kong,” he writes. “Each move like this raises the stakes for other sectors, especially academics and entertainment. Any challenge to government has become a risk, making self-censorship more likely.”

The Financial Times, in an editorial, warns that the financial services industry will be cowed as well. “Banks will be wary that analysts’ reports critical of Chinese politics or state companies could cause them trouble,” FT editors fret. “It is a small jump from the move against Apple Daily, its assets frozen by a court order, to assaults on bigger or foreign businesses. Such developments strip away the advantages that long made Hong Kong such an important financial hub and gateway to mainland China: the free flow of ideas and information, backed by rule of law.”

Bill Bishop in his Sinocism newsletter suggests that outcome will suit Beijing just fine. Chinese President Xi Jinping, he argues, has little to fear from more “toothless paper tiger sanctions” from the West. “The Apple Daily closure will probably have the desired chilling effect on other media” he predicts, and Beijing will likely look next for “examples in the legal profession to ensure that group gets with the new reality as well.”

The FT raises the specter that the paper’s fate could spark an exodus of foreign firms. But so far there is little evidence of that. As the FT acknowledges, China last year overtook the U.S. as the world’s top destination for foreign investment.

“Beijing is today attracted less by big U.S. businesses’ capital than the possibility that, having Chinese operations to protect, they will lobby against White House hawkishness,” the editorial concedes. “However short-sighted, when it comes to suppressing dissent in Hong Kong and any prospect of it spreading, that is a risk Beijing is prepared to take.”

More Eastworld news below.

Clay Chandler
– clay.chandler@fortune.com

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Nicholas Gordon. Reach him at nicholas.gordon@fortune.com.

EASTWORLD NEWS

Singapore and 'the new normal'

The heads of Singapore’s multi-ministry task force on COVID-19 have accepted that the city is unlikely to completely eradicate COVID-19, and will instead implement a policy to manage outbreaks through vaccinations and testing. The city recently reduced their inbound quarantine from 21 days to 14, noting a lack of evidence to warrant such a long isolation period. These moves are a shift away from the “COVID Zero” approach pursued in places like China, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. The Straits Times

Xinjiang

The Biden Administration has ordered a ban on imports of a key material used in solar panels from Hoshine Silicon Industry Co. unless the company can prove that they were not produced using forced labor in Xinjiang. Hoshine, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, and three other Xinjiang-based manufacturers involved in the solar supply chain were added to the U.S. export blacklist, which bars American companies from selling to blacklisted entities without government approval. Reuters

Ant Financial

Ant Group is in talks to establish a credit-scoring company with Chinese state-owned enterprises, which would put its consumer data under the oversight of China’s regulators. The company had originally resisted efforts to share data with regulators, but official pressure on both Ant and China’s tech sector more broadly may have encouraged a change in policy. The Wall Street Journal

Toshiba

On Friday, Toshiba’s shareholders will meet to determine whether Osamu Nagayama will remain the company’s chairman. Board leadership is under pressure after an investigation found that the company had worked with Japanese government officials to influence its board selection process. Bloomberg

Benigno Aquino III

Local Filipino media reported that former President Benigno Aquino III, who served from 2010 to 2016, passed away on Thursday morning. Aquino was the son of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., who was assassinated by then-President Ferdinand Marcos in 1983, and Corazon Aquino, herself President from 1986 to 1992. Aquino’s term was marked by an economic boom, but growing populist sentiment elected outsider Rodrigo Duterte instead of Aquino's favored successor in 2016. Rappler

MARKETS AND MOVERS

Lalamove Bloomberg reports that Hong Kong-based logistics company Lalamove has made a confidential filing for a U.S. IPO, and hopes to raise $1 billion. The move would follow a successful U.S. listing from another Chinese logistics company: Full Truck Alliance, which raised $1.6 billion on Tuesday.

GlobalFoundries The world’s third-largest contract chipmaker will spend $4 billion to build a new factory in Singapore. In a virtual groundbreaking ceremony, CEO Tom Caulfield noted that the company’s investments are being accelerated to meet the global chip shortage. 

Bukalapak The Indonesian e-commerce unicorn hopes to list on Jakarta’s stock exchange in July. It’s the latest Indonesian tech firm to plan a listing, after GoTo and Traveloka both announced their plans to go public.

Nayuki Holdings The bubble tea chain raised $656 million in its initial public offering, in what observers see as a revival of Hong Kong’s stock exchange after several disappointing listings this quarter. Shares of in newly-listed companies like Youran Dairy have slumped since their debuts.

China's private education — Chinese companies offering tutoring services are among the worst stock performers for the year amid a crackdown on the sector from Beijing, spurred by concerns about student overwork. Shares of one firm—Gaotu Techedu—have plummeted by 73% in the past year.

Xpeng Xpeng has received approval to list on Hong Kong’s stock exchange, where the company hopes to raise $1.1 billion, the same amount it raised in its U.S. listing a year ago.

FINAL FIGURE

7

On Tuesday, the Hong Kong government announced new quarantine measures for inbound arrivals. Hong Kong's rules originally stated that incoming arrivals, even if vaccinated, would have to spend at least two to three weeks in hotel quarantine. Now, incoming travelers to Hong Kong only need to spend seven days in a designated quarantine hotel … if they are fully vaccinated, test positive for antibodies within three months of arrival, test negative through a PCR test on arrival at the airport, and are not flying from a “very high-risk” country. 

It’s a start.

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