Amy Lai teaches and conducts research on freedom of speech at Freie Universitat in Berlin, Germany, and is the winner of Pen Canada’s Ken Filkow Prize for freedom of expression.
Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s popular pro-democracy Chinese-language newspaper, issued its final edition last week after the arrests of five senior executives and the freezing of its assets by the Hong Kong government. The forced closing of the 26-year-old business, which issued its first edition in the British colonial era, turned the world’s attention back to China’s ruthless and determined attempt to snuff out dissent, which never stopped despite the pandemic.
In its early years, Apple Daily was controversial, despite its wide readership. Because of its paparazzi-style photos and sensational reports on the entertainment industry and social issues, it was viewed by many with contempt.
But Apple Daily found a way to successfully blend infotainment along with serious journalism. The global and local news sections were run by a dedicated group of journalists, many of whom graduated from top programs and fearlessly exposed government corruption in both China and Hong Kong. Its foreign correspondents risked their own health and safety to cover overseas stories first-hand. And its opinion pages featured writers from diverse backgrounds, whose witty, educated and thoughtful commentaries commanded respect even from those who disagreed with them.
Apple Daily was like the character who exposed the vanity of the naked emperor and the hypocrisy of those around him in Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale. During the Occupy Central Movement in 2014, it emerged as the only newspaper in the city that took a strong pro-democracy position. It reported on the aspirations and struggles of those who engaged in the months-long civil disobedience movement to protest Beijing’s breach of the Sino-English Joint Declaration and disallowance of universal suffrage, as well as the China-backed government’s complete disregard for the rule of law and progressively tyrannical tactics. Despite boycotts from pro-China politicians and businesses, it continued to garner more readers.
I became a frequent contributor to Apple Daily’s opinion page while in Canada from 2013 to 2015. My late father, a loyal follower of Apple Daily Online, like many Hong Kongers, rushed to purchase a paper copy every time my work appeared. During my extended stay in Hong Kong in 2019 to prepare for his funeral, the sight of these old copies, neatly stacked in a dusty, sunlit corner of my bedroom, brought me tears of joy and longing, but also of fear – the tension already mounting in the city portended the newspaper’s fate.
Apple Daily’s founder Jimmy Lai, a self-made billionaire, impressed the free world with his courage last summer when he forfeited the chance to leave Hong Kong for a Western democracy, despite his impending arrest under the new National Security Law. From the high-security prison where he is currently jailed, he urged fellow Hong Kongers: “Don’t be afraid.” These words mirrored the newspaper’s inaugural editorial in 1995, two years before Hong Kong’s handover to China: “Are we not afraid of the changes 1997 could bring about? We are, but we are not willing to be daunted by fear.”
The forced closing of Apple Daily should be a wake-up call for Canadians who still hold naive, misinformed visions of China as a free, peace-loving country. It should also shake the notion held by Canadian politicians and academics that engaging China through diplomatic means will benefit both countries. China’s aggression is never contained within its borders; it has sought to export its authoritarianism across the Pacific, for instance, by infiltrating Canadian Chinese-language media to eradicate criticisms of Beijing and by disrupting Hong Kongers’ protests on Canadian soil. Conflating criticism of China with promotion of anti-Asian racism, in particular, plays into the hands of the Chinese government, whose goal is to quash meaningful debate in Western countries.
On the rainy night of June 23, when employees of Apple Daily lit candles next to their office windows as they prepared the paper’s last edition, hundreds of Hong Kongers gathered outside the building and turned on the lights in their cellphones to bid an emotional farewell. This heart-rending scene should remind Canadians not to take their freedoms for granted or yield to authorities that seek to strip away their liberties. The domination of the media by mainstream ideologies and the exclusion of heterodox opinions is a warning sign that society is going down the path of authoritarianism.
Apple Daily’s forced closing and the elimination of all its social-media accounts might create the illusion that its impact is no longer there. Yet neither the past, nor the Apple spirit, is dead. Hope remains that the seeds of dissent, buried deep underground, will manage to spread, sprout from the soil and grow into trees of democracy.
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