BILLIONAIRE JIMMY LAI’S Next Digital media group will decide on Friday if its Hong Kong newspaper, Apple Daily, can carry on with its founder in jail, its top editorial and business executives in detention or on bail and its bank accounts frozen.
Some 500 police raided the company’s offices on June 17 on the grounds that the newspaper’s reports had breached the national security law. Six executives were detained in separate operations at their homes, including the company’s chief executive, Cheung Kim-hung, and the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Ryan Law, on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces or external elements to endanger national security.
Authorities subsequently said that Apple Daily had published more than 30 articles calling on countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland China since 2019. Cheung and Law have been charged under the national security law. Lai, one of the most prominent supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, is currently in jail for a series of charges, including participating in an unauthorised assembly in 2019 during the pro-democracy demonstrations.
The paper has continued to publish despite a lack of access to its bank accounts. Hongkongers have been buying copies in large numbers to show their support. However, its future is precarious, and it could be disbanded by authorities regardless if found guilty of breaking the national security law. If it fails to pay its staff at the end of the month, it would also be in violation of labour laws due to salary arrears.
There are two possible interpretations of authorities’ motivations. One is that closing Apple Daily is part of the continuing campaign against Lai and his continuing defiance. The other is that it is a broader strike against press freedom in its overall drive to impose stability. Whichever, the longer-term impact is likely to be the same, removing the most critical voice of Beijing within Hong Kong’s media and a chilling effect on any that attempt to fill the vacuum it leaves.
It will not, however, change any minds on whether Beijing intends to silence public dissent. That argument is already settled.
Nor is it likely to be instrumental in making companies decided whether to stay or leave. The raid on Apple Daily well illustrated how the ambiguity of the national security law could be applied, especially the ill-defined nature of colluding with foreign forces or external elements.
Any foreign company with experience of operating in China will be familiar with that aspect of the country’s legal system.
Update: Apple Daily says Thursday’s edition will be its last and that it will close, citing staff safety in its announcement.