Media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying is detained by the national security unit in Hong Kong, China, August 10 2020. Picture: REUTERS/TYRONE SIU
Media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying is detained by the national security unit in Hong Kong, China, August 10 2020. Picture: REUTERS/TYRONE SIU

Hong Kong — Right before China retook control of Hong Kong in 1997, tycoon Jimmy Lai started Apple Daily in part to promote democracy in the city. For 25 years the newspaper survived advertising boycotts and political pressure but never backed off its tough coverage of the Chinese government and pro-Beijing legislators.

It may not last through the next few months. Hong Kong police arrested Lai and several of his top executives on Monday and sent hundreds of officers to search the Apple Daily offices, a demonstration of the broad potential for the new national security law to silence criticism and dissent beyond pro-democracy protests and activism.

Passed in June, the legislation bars “crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces” as interpreted by the Chinese government and enforced by Beijing’s new security office in Hong Kong. Lai’s arrest was not entirely unexpected, but it still shook the foundations of press freedom in the financial centre and raised fears about what might come next.

For the global business community, which relies on the rule of law and stability that Hong Kong offers, threats to the free press are troubling, says Imogen T Liu, a political economist affiliated with Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

“Hong Kong is attractive to international investors because it has a reputation for market discipline and transparency that was institutionalised under British rule,” she says. “Free speech is part of this liberal image, along with free market competition and government non-intervention.”

Journalists have been concerned about China’s tightening grip on free speech in Hong Kong at least since 2018, when local authorities declined to renew the work visa of the new editor for the Financial Times. It was thought to be the first expulsion of a foreign journalist since the 1997 handover and suggested a bolder Chinese influence on the city.

Those concerns grew this year. After the US placed restrictions on Chinese media, the government in Beijing expelled Americans working for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post and said they were not welcome in Hong Kong. In July the New York Times announced it was moving its digital news operation from Hong Kong to Seoul.

The Foreign Correspondents Club, Hong Kong, which advocates for press freedom in Asia, condemned the arrests and newsroom raid on Monday, saying they “signal a dark new phase in the erosion of the city’s global reputation.”

Last week the club called for the US and Chinese governments to stop using journalists as political canon fodder: “This downward spiral of retaliatory actions aimed at journalists helps no-one, not least of all the public that needs accurate, professionally produced information now more than ever.”

That statement also said that journalists have reported delays in new or renewed visas, which it called “highly unusual for Hong Kong”. Meanwhile, local outlet the Standard reported that journalist visas were now being vetted by a “national security unit” within the Hong Kong Immigration department, a new process that more closely mirrors China’s close scrutiny of foreign media.

Locally, Wilson Li Chung-chak, a freelancer for Britain’s ITV and former member of the now-disbanded student activist group Scholarism, was arrested for collusion with a foreign country or external elements, the first time a freelance journalist was charged under the new law, according to the South China Morning Post.

The effects have been chilling. Selina Cheng, an investigative reporter at local news outlet HK01, says senior management has begun to restrict the kinds of stories their reporters can work on. “When editors are worried about getting into trouble they naturally won’t push reporters to do more reporting on topics they don’t feel comfortable with,” she says.

Even Apple Daily had taken steps to protect its reporters and stopped printing bylines after the law passed.

“Other media outlets looking at what happened to Apple Daily today know that if they speak out against the government — like Apple Daily did — they will face the same consequences,” says Martin Lam, a reporter who has covered Hong Kong politics for the paper for 13 years. “They will be more cautious of what they report in the near future.”

The new law has also taken aim at literature. Several books by pro-democracy activists were removed from Hong Kong libraries and are “under review” to see if they run foul of the new law.

“Pulling books out of the library, arresting pro-democracy activists — this is exactly how the law is supposed to work,” says Jimmy Chan Hing-chi, a political economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “In the long run, as freedom of expression is undermined further and further, Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial centre may gradually erode.”

Minh Bui Jones, editor-in-chief of the pan-Asian literary magazine, Mekong Review, says less than three weeks after the law passed, his printing company told him it had been ordered by authorities to stop printing the magazine. Jones’ attempts to follow up went unanswered, and he found a different printer.

“I would still like to publish in Hong Kong,” says Jones, praising the printers, the location, and the legacy of other Hong Kong-based publications including the Far Eastern Economic Review. “But it’s getting harder and harder, and at some point you’ll just give up.”


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