Why Beijing isn’t worried about the consequences of closing Apple Daily
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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.
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.
This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Nicholas Gordon. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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It’s a start.
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