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Published: 00:02, June 29, 2021, Updated: 10:02, June 29, 2021
Closure of Apple Daily: Political obsessions affect everybody who is involved
By Grenville Cross
Published:00:02, June 29, 2021 Updated:10:02, June 29, 2021 By Grenville Cross

It is always sad when people lose their jobs, and there is sympathy for the Apple Daily employees now facing redundancy. They include journalists from, for example, the entertainment, finance and sports desks, as well as engineers, printers and delivery workers. They have all fallen victim to the political obsessions of one man, the newspaper’s founder and Next Digital owner, Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, and to the machinations of his inner circle.

What Apple Daily finally became was a far cry from how it started out in 1995. When launched, it was a tabloid-style publication, with a penchant for the type of checkbook journalism which is popular in some quarters. It was big on investigative scoops and sensationalism, but short on substance, although this changed over time. Once Lai burnished its anti-China credentials, Apple Daily developed a political agenda and a clear mission, and this attracted foreign interest.

In 2003, for example, when Tung Chee-hwa’s government sought to discharge its constitutional duty to enact national security legislation, Apple Daily stoked the resulting protests. By the time of “Occupy Central” in 2014, Lai was closely involved in advising Occupy leaders, orchestrating the demonstrations, and encouraging opposition to the electoral reform package, even though it would have enabled Hong Kong to elect its chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017. 

Indeed, on March 23, 2016, when interviewed by Nikkei Asia about his support of the 2014 protests, he frankly acknowledged that “I was at the forefront of the movement”, and even boasted that “I can go to the leading edge of a movement like this as much as I like”. According to media reports, he also pumped HK$40 million (US$5.15 million) into political parties antagonistic to the local and central governments, and many saw him as the mastermind behind the social disturbances.

If, moreover, the UK, the EU and the US are genuinely concerned about press freedom, it is hypocritical that they only get upset when China is involved. 

With a record like this, it came as no surprise that China’s geopolitical rivals decided to embrace Lai, and then to weaponize him. When he visited Washington DC, in July 2019, just days after protesters had trashed the Legislative Council building, he was duly lionized by the political establishment. Having been ushered into the White House, to meet the then-vice-president, Mike Pence, he was then taken to meet the then-secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the then-national security adviser, John Bolton, which was extraordinary.

Although newspaper magnates are not normally red-carpeted like this, Lai’s hosts clearly recognized his potential. Here was a rich man from Hong Kong who was willing not only to use his influence to malign his own government and condemn China, but also to help the US advance its own agenda on Chinese soil. Although the US officials did not disclose what they asked Lai to do for them, he provided an inkling after he returned home, in his now-notorious CNN interview. On Aug 28, 2019, he declared that “we in Hong Kong are fighting for the shared values of the US against China, we are fighting their war in the enemy camp”. This would, of course, have delighted Pence, Pompeo and Bolton, and it made clear to everybody that he now saw himself as Uncle Sam’s poodle.

Indeed, Lai’s whole ethos was, in his own words, one of “war” and “fighting”, and his belligerence permeated Apple Daily’s thinking at all levels, with clear consequences. Whereas mindless animosity toward the Hong Kong authorities was rampant, protest-related mayhem was excused, and malign coverage of China’s affairs was almost an article of faith. Little, if any, pretense was made of customary journalistic reporting, and the newspaper operated as a quasi-political entity in its own right, even attempting, through Lai’s lieutenant, Mark Simon, to interfere in the US presidential election campaign of 2020 by undermining a candidate. Its senior staff eagerly bought into Lai’s bellicosity, even claiming, in their valedictory message, that they had fought “a good war”.

In 2020, with the enactment of the National Security Law for Hong Kong, the then-US president, Donald Trump, adopted various measures to harm both Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. Apart from sanctioning officials, these included canceling Hong Kong’s favored trading status with the US, pledging to undermine its financial status, and even ordering the removal of the “Made in Hong Kong” label from the city’s products. Oozing an almost visceral hatred of the city, Trump declared that the “Hong Kong markets will go to hell”, that the city would be unable to “compete with fair markets”, and that it would “fail”. What Trump failed to explain, however, was how harming Hong Kong and its people like this would benefit anyone, although this did not faze Lai. Indeed, even though Trump was willing to sacrifice Hong Kong in order to harm China, Lai was happy to play along. 

Thus, despite Trump having hurt the city and its officials, Lai mobilized Apple Daily on Trump’s behalf. On May 28, 2020, clearly afraid that Joe Biden might win the US presidential election, he declared that “Trump is the only person who can save us from China”. Thereafter, in an Apple Daily editorial on Sept 2, 2020, it was announced that “no American President had ever been as supportive of Hong Kong as Trump”, who was then lauded for having “signed bills and imposed administrative sanctions on those in power in Hong Kong and mainland China”. Having described the harm Trump had caused to Chinese officials as “mere appetizers”, the editorial explained that “treating China like the Nazis”, and joining forces with English-speaking countries and Japan, would now be “the main course”. If, it then concluded, China did not mend its ways, it would, in words lifted straight from the US State Department’s songbook, “find itself increasingly struggling on the world stage”.  

If editorials like this are anything to go by, it is no surprise that the police consider that Apple Daily’s news operations were being used as a tool to harm national security. They suspect that, through the publication of over 30 articles, consisting mainly of commentaries and opinion pieces, some written by Lai, there was a conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and external elements, which is an offense under the National Security Law (Article 29). Only time will tell if the charges can stand up in court, but there are, of course, always limits to press freedom, and some journalistic activities are intolerable throughout the civilized world. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that restrictions are permissible for “the protection of national security” (Art.19), and, if the allegations against Apple Daily are true, the boundary of acceptable journalism has long since been crossed.  

This, however, has not prevented the customary mischief making by China’s geopolitical rivals, all hoping to use the Apple Daily saga to embarrass Beijing. As cringeworthy as ever, the British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, without once evaluating the very serious allegations leveled against the suspects, described the newspaper’s closure as “a chilling blow to freedom of expression in Hong Kong”. The EU spokesman, Nabila Massrali, called for the Basic Law’s rights to be “fully protected and restored”, clearly ignorant that freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed in Hong Kong, and that the ICCPR recognizes the need for restrictions when national security is endangered. 

Of course, Biden could not resist yet another ill-judged jab at China. Instead of getting on with resolving the scandal exposed by the BBC (June 23) over migrant children being held in “alarming conditions” in US border camps, where disease is reportedly rampant, food is dangerous and sexual abuse is common, he chose to waffle away about Beijing trying to suppress “independent media and silence dissenting views”. This, of course, was cover for his real concern, which was that a long-time US proxy, and his mouthpiece, was finally being held to account. 

If, moreover, the UK, the EU and the US are genuinely concerned about press freedom, it is hypocritical that they only get upset when China is involved. They did not, for example, kick up a similar fuss in February 2019, when Australia’s Federal Police raided the Australian Broadcasting Company’s newsroom in Sydney, as well as the home of a newspaper journalist, Annika Smethurst, over articles based on leaks from government whistleblowers. The police seized thousands of documents over an ABC investigation which alleged Australian troops had committed war crimes in Afghanistan. They justified their actions on the basis of a 2018 national security law, which criminalized the receipt by journalists of classified information from military or intelligence sources. 

The Sydney raids sparked a public outcry and protests throughout the local media, with leading newspapers blacking out their front pages the next day. The ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, even described the raids as a high-profile “attempt to intimidate journalists for doing their job”. Despite this, the UK, the EU and the US, always so concerned about press freedom in China, kept mum, for obvious reasons. Australia is a member of their own club, and it would never do for them to embarrass Canberra in the way they are now trying to embarrass Beijing. 

In the real world, when people and organizations are suspected to have been involved in serious crimes, there are invariably consequences, and there can also be collateral damage. Sometimes materials have to be seized and funds frozen, not for ulterior purposes, but in order to facilitate inquiries and thwart any possible criminality in future. Although it is regrettable if innocent parties suffer, responsibility for this lies not with the officials who have to uphold the law, but with the people whose activities stoked the concerns that have necessitated enforcement action.

The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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