#PrayforHongKong might not be the trending topic on social media anymore. The stories and posts in support of the peoples’ movement from the global community is not as frequent and intense as it was during the early phases of the movement. Yet, the city of Hong Kong and the people of Hong Kong have not ceased to preserve their identity while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues its efforts to assimilate the city into China. The latest developments arise out of the shutdown of Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s best selling tabloids, popularly known for its pro-democracy stance.
Earlier in April, Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, was sentenced to 14 months in prison over his role during one of the city’s rallies on October 1, 2019. He was already serving sentences for his participation in similar demonstrations on August 18 and August 31, 2019. Lai has been a stern critic of Beijing and the controversial National Security Law (NSL) which was introduced by China in 2020 in response to the protests, calling it “draconian” while authorities prioritise it as “necessary.” He faces three charges under the NSL which bars secession, subversion and foreign collusion.
Lai’s arrest and the tabloid’s shutdown have drawn criticism from international rights groups who have raised concerns over the ebbing freedom of the people and the press. Amnesty International deemed the paper’s closure as “the blackest day for media freedom in Hong Kong’s recent history.” It went on to criticise the NSL by stating, “the fact that the authorities are using the national security law to enable this crackdown highlights the deeply repressive nature of the legislation.”
Despite the criticism, the authorities have maintained their stance. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, told critics not to “beautify these acts of endangering national security.” Lam also said that her government was working on “fake news” legislation to tackle “misinformation, hatred and lies… We will continue to be very serious about this issue because of the damage it is doing too many people.” In another instance, John Lee, Lam’s security chief, urged the public and media to sever all ties with the newspaper’s executives who had been arrested, “or you’ll regret it very much.”
(In picture: the last issue of Apple Daily)
Beijing, on the other hand, considers it an achievement and a step closer towards unity. Lai was seen as a traitor and an anti-China instigator. His arrest was considered vital for restoring stability and prosperity. Remarks by China’s state broadcaster last month highlight the CCP’s active pursuit, stating that the “doomsday is getting closer and closer” for the “rotten apple that plagued Hong Kong for 20 years.”
While lauded for its pro-democratic stance by other countries, Apple Daily is seen a symbol of division among the Chinese. The tabloid’s anti-China narrative is not taken positively either, further straining the relation between the regions, often manifesting in the form of direct confrontation through articles, advertisements, cartoons, etc. For example, in 2012, Apple Daily published a full-page advertisement calling mainland Chinese “locusts” who swarmed Hong Kong to drain its resources. Similarly, social media platforms like Weibo record wide circulation of sarcastic memes and jokes. Following Lai’s arrest, a related hashtag was created which has gathered 110m views.
The political tension is also affecting businesses and news agencies in Hong Kong. Many are wary of investment opportunities and recalibrating their strategies. David Webb, for example, a prominent investor who held shares in Next Digital – Apple Daily’s patent company – said that “when people as outspoken as me are underlying to speak on air about this subject, then you can reasonably infer that they no longer feel safe to speak under the NSL.”
The atmosphere and culture of free speech in Hong Kong attracted many international news agencies such as The New York Times and the Financial Times. However, in the last few years, both local and foreign journalists’ associations have complained about the “deterioration of press freedom.” The earlier charm of the former British colony seems to be diminishing and companies have sought to relocate their offices. For instance, in 2020, The New York Times announced its intention to move some of its Hong Kong staff to Seoul citing the NSL as “unsettling news organisations and created uncertainty about the city’s prospects as a hub for journalism.” Others are reported to follow a similar move.
Local organisations, on the other hand, have limited options without the luxury of relocating to other countries. The issue of fake news have been reported as the most recent tool of the authorities to suppress and subdue any divergent narrative. For example, the police sent a pamphlet called “Know the facts: rumours and lies can never be right” accompanied by a letter which warned against the “wicked and slanderous attacks” on the police to a few Hong Kong-based news agencies, including The New York Times.
The 12-page pamphlet read, “In the real world, the police faced much street violence; in the virtual world, the police were vilified in the media and on the internet. Fake news was maliciously published to slander police officers … These allegations were intended to paint police officers as untrustworthy, and no effort was spared in undermining the work of the police.”
It is difficult to predict what will happen next. When he saw the apple fall, Newton discovered gravity, and now that Hong Kong’s apple has fallen, what will we uncover?
T. Hanghal is currently pursuing his post graduation in East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. His interests are Japanese popular culture, the consumption of popular culture, both in Japan and other countries, and how it shapes society. He is also passionate about studying cinema as a medium for identity politics.