A Eulogy for the Free Press

Apple Daily was a flawed symbol for media rights. But its closure marks a dark new chapter in Hong Kong.

The last printed Apple Daily newspaper
Apple Daily, a 26-year-old tabloid, closed after having its assets frozen by the police. (Anthony Wallace / AFP / Getty)

On the morning of July 1, 2020, newsstands across Hong Kong had a conspicuously uniform appearance. At least eight major papers carried identical front-page advertisements: a cerulean-shaded photo of uniformed officials standing below the Chinese and Hong Kong flags with the city’s harbor in the background. The image was overlaid with lines of white text triumphantly welcoming the arrival of a sweeping national-security law enacted the night before. Just one paper looked different, breaking from the monotonous propaganda. Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s brash tabloid, offered a take that better captured both the feelings of many city residents and the reality of the situation. “Draconian law takes effect,” the paper’s front-page headline read. “One country, two systems dead.”

Inflammatory and sensationalist, racy and unabashedly prodemocracy, Apple Daily pushed the limits of respectable reporting and at times disavowed them entirely. But, for its many flaws, it was also a formidable journalistic force, landing major scoops on corruption and official misconduct, covering human-rights struggles in China, and regularly challenging Hong Kong’s leaders. As other publications fell in line with Beijing’s messaging, toning down their critical coverage after being snatched up by buyers with mainland connections, Apple Daily remained defiant, despite advertising boycotts, firebomb attacks, and threats to its journalists.

Yet this brand of truth-digging is now wholly incompatible with the authorities’ vision of a more subservient city, devoid of any meaningful dissent. The government has recently neutered its public broadcaster and convicted a reporter who had investigated the police, but it has reserved its harshest punishment for its fiercest critic.

Last night, Apple Daily printed its final edition, succumbing to a relentless government campaign that has seen the paper’s founder and its editor in chief jailed and facing possible life sentences, its newsroom twice raided, and its assets frozen, paralyzing its profitable operations. A newspaper that had lasted more than a quarter century—through the final days of colonialism and into Hong Kong’s Chinese rule—survived less than a year under the national-security law that it warned against but that other outlets were happy to be paid to promote. This morning, convenience stores and newsstands across Hong Kong were largely sold out of the paper’s final edition, even though 1 million copies had been produced. People began lining up around midnight to purchase the paper despite weather that was appropriate for the mood. “Hong Kongers bid a painful farewell in the rain,” Apple Daily’s final front-page read.

More than a newspaper, Apple Daily represented one of the few remaining outlets for activism and witty resistance in Hong Kong. For less than $1.50, it provided daily encouragement for city residents, who have seen some of their most popular lawmakers and activists jailed, their elections retooled to eradicate the opposition, and their ability to protest, or even stand vigil, done away with. Pages of advertisements, bought up by small businesses or individuals and written in prodemocracy cipher, offered a creative outlet. With more-overt political displays quickly vanishing, a stack of the day’s newspapers at a café offered an indication of the establishment’s political leanings. “The fate of Apple Daily,” one of the paper’s senior reporters, who asked to be identified only by his last name, Chan, told us, “has always been aligned with the political atmosphere in Hong Kong.” (The journalist, like others who spoke with us for this story, requested anonymity, fearing repercussions given the worsening climate of repression.)

Apple Daily marked its late-1990s arrival to the city’s already crowded news market with aggressive pricing and creative advertising campaigns: “An apple a day keeps the lies away,” one proclaimed. Its pugnacious business strategy was matched by the tactics deployed by some of its reporters, which were confrontational and, at times, flat-out illegal. Its pages were filled with stories of gruesome crimes, celebrity-sex gossip, and political scandals, illustrated with colorful, splashy graphics.

The coverage could sometimes go too far. The paper issued a front-page apology in 1998, after its sensational and unethical coverage of a murder-suicide involving two young children and a philandering husband. Two years later, a reporter was found guilty and jailed when he was discovered to have been regularly paying police officers for leads and information. Yet the tabloid remained unbowed. “All tabloids are bound to cross the line,” says Chip Tsao, a veteran Apple Daily columnist whose writings tend to focus on many of the same grievances as the American right and have been criticized as sexist and racist. “The Mirror, The Sun, The New York Post, don’t they cross the line from time to time? That is what tabloids are meant to do,” he told us. “Only the press in Beijing and North Korea never cross the line.”

Much of Apple Daily’s assertive style—and fervently prodemocracy tilt—was a reflection of its founder, Jimmy Lai.

Lai, who is in his 70s, came to Hong Kong in his youth, as a poor stowaway from mainland China, and rose to fortune in the garment industry. A late convert to Catholicism, Lai does not “come off as particularly pious,” Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest and longtime friend of Lai’s, told us. “He is a little rougher than rough.” (Pressed by reporters at one of his other publications, Lai admitted that rumors of his sleeping with prostitutes before he was married were indeed true.) When his support for students during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and his insults of Chinese leadership forced him to sell his clothing business, he pivoted fully into media, bringing his streetwise business acumen and deep pockets with him.

Lai initially launched a magazine, but in the run-up to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, he began to plan for a daily newspaper. Entering a saturated market that had an uncertain future seemed “audacious,” Mark Clifford, a journalist who wrote an early profile of him, told us. Still, Lai, as he had done before and would do many times after, spurned conventional wisdom. In June 1995, the first copies of Apple Daily were dropped on Hong Kong’s sidewalks.

The newspaper’s appearance set off a fierce price war, as Lai aimed to undercut his competition. The gambit worked. Apple Daily quickly captured 10 to 15 percent of the Chinese-language market. Clifford described the paper’s formative years as offering a mix of the New York Post’s Page Six, the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, and, eventually, early internet innovations such as Vice. It “was really bare knuckles,” said Clifford, who would serve as the editor in chief of the South China Morning Post and, in 2018, was named an independent non-executive director of Next Digital Limited, Apple Daily’s parent company. “They shook up the cozy elite world of the [property] developers and the politicians and the media.”

Apple Daily’s early breaking-news operation was unusual: A team of more than 100 bikers recruited from pizza-delivery and bike shops, who had been trained in photography and journalism, would be dispatched to cover accidents and crime scenes after editors intercepted police messages over radio receivers. But its scoops and impact were significant. In January 2003, the newspaper revealed that Hong Kong’s financial secretary had purchased a Lexus just weeks before jacking up taxes on luxury vehicles. The same year, the paper helped rally tens of thousands to the streets in opposition to proposed national-security legislation, which was eventually shelved. Later, Apple Daily was recognized for its reporting on the plight of Liu Xia, the widow of the Chinese Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died while in detention, and collected awards for investigations into a police officer’s illegal housing structures and the Chinese coast guard’s arrest of 12 Hong Kongers last year.

The paper’s muckraking and Lai’s consistent criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party made both a target. In Chinese state media, Lai was frequently insulted, referred to as “Fat Lai,” “Marijuana Lai,” “a tragedy,” “a national traitor,” “an agent,” and “an accomplice of the U.S.” These attacks escalated when Lai traveled to Washington, D.C., during Hong Kong’s 2019 prodemocracy protests in order to meet with politicians, including then–Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton.

That the newspaper could really fold became apparent to Lai last Christmas, Mark Simon, his right-hand man, told us. “They are going to get us,” Simon recalled Lai saying. “It is going to happen.”

When the newspaper was raided in August, the focus appeared to be primarily on Lai, who was arrested. If authorities thought that their efforts would stifle support, however, they badly miscalculated. The following day, the newspaper printed more than half a million copies, and people lined up in the darkness to purchase stacks of them. Sympathetic advertisements mushroomed as a show of solidarity. Next Digital’s stock price surged some 300 percent.

The second raid, which took place last week, was more ominous; its clear goal was to shut down the news operation completely. Hundreds of police officers flooded into Apple Daily’s offices, seizing computers and journalists’ reporting materials. Five newspaper executives, including the editor in chief and the chief executive were arrested. Both were charged with violating the national-security law by colluding with foreign forces, and denied bail. A prominent opinion writer was later arrested on national-security charges. Lai, who is serving a 20-month prison sentence for illegal-assembly convictions, is also facing multiple charges of violating the national-security law. He faces a possible life sentence. Authorities have insisted, puzzlingly, that the arrests of editors and writers have nothing to do with attacking the free press. Police have said that numerous Apple Daily articles called for sanctions against Hong Kong and China, and therefore violated the law. They have not detailed which articles, or listed them. John Lee, the secretary for security, described the individuals arrested—ostensibly still only suspects—as “criminals who make use of journalistic work as a tool to further their criminal activities.”

Yesterday morning, the newsroom stood mostly empty, as many of the staff, including section heads, had resigned, while others worked from home as rumors swirled of yet another impending raid. Chan, the senior reporter we spoke with, was eating breakfast at the company canteen when a news notification popped up on his phone announcing that an editorial writer had been arrested. By the time he had finished his French toast, colleagues were rushing by to warn him that the police were on their way. He and his co-workers raced out of the building. Fearing that the company’s shuttle bus could be intercepted, some left on foot in the driving rain. Once he had hopped into a taxi, Chan kept a look out for police cars, and called his editor to report that he was safe. The scare interrupted work on his final article, an obituary of the paper.

Late last night, lines were already forming at newsstands across Hong Kong. Dozens of supporters had gathered outside the gates of the newspaper’s offices. Staff members stood on the roof, waving their mobile-phone lights and shouting, “Thank you!” to readers. Inside, editors and page designers sat at their desks, laying out the newspaper’s pages, the routine suddenly historical.

Chan, too, was back at the office, finishing up his work. The competition is “delighted to see us die,” he said. But even with Apple Daily gone, “the values the paper has symbolized and embraced,” he said, “still exist among the people.”