The billionaire founder of a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has had his assets frozen by the city’s increasingly totalitarian, pro-Beijing government in a move some say marks the beginning of the end for a free press in the former democracy.
The founder of Next Media, Jimmy Lai, had his shares in the company and the property of three additional private companies he holds frozen by the Hong Kong Security Bureau on May 14. The Bureau utilized the widely despised National Security Law’s (NSL) powers to enforce the seizure.
Because Next Media is the parent company of newspaper Apple Daily, a vocal opponent of Beijing, the seizure is the latest example of the Hong Kong government’s crackdown on public opinion amidst continued social and political opposition. Prior to this, CCP-controlled media published numerous articles criticizing Lai’s empire, calling for a prohibition of its operations.
Lai, who is currently serving a 14-month jail term for taking part in “illegal assemblies” during the massive 2019 protest movement, is awaiting trial on multiple additional charges alleging “collusion with foreign powers” under the NSL. According to a May 14 Hong Kong Security Bureau press release, the government asserts the Secretary for Security has the authority to freeze Lai’s property under the NSL.
Jimmy Lai currently holds 71.26% of Next Media’s shares. According to Hung Kim Cheung, CEO of Apple Daily, a newspaper under the group, the freeze will neither affect the operations and funding of the group nor Apple Daily.
The Chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Chris Yeung, warned that although Next Media’s short-term operations were not affected by the incident, he believes the incident has cast a serious psychological shadow over his company’s staff and poses a threat to the entire media industry in Hong Kong.
Noteworthy is that some government officials have criticized and hinted at the prohibition of Apple Daily before the incident. Meanwhile, several mouthpiece newspapers of the Chinese Communist Party publishing in Hong Kong have also written extensive reports and commentaries calling for the outlawing the publication.
For example, Hong Kong Police Commissioner, Tang Ping Keung, has repeatedly criticized Apple Daily for allegedly publishing “fake news”; the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, followed suit when she stated the government is studying the enactment of “fake news” legislation.
The Beijing-owned China Central Television recently published an article titled Jimmy Lai’s Assets are Frozen, Is the End of the Rotten Apple Far Away? which claimed Apple Daily “is becoming a platform for incitement and a mobilization machine for anti-China forces,” that the outlet is “the biggest ‘brainwashing’ machine of the anti-China forces”, and has “harmed” generations of Hong Kong youth, and become the “main source of chaos” in Hong Kong’s society.
“We advocate the authorities to ‘completely eradicate’ Apple Daily as soon as possible according to the law,” said the article, penned by an anonymous author.
“I believe this is the first step of wiping out Apple Daily,” said Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, in an interview with Apple Daily on the 14th.
“The director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, Xia Baolong, has named Jimmy Lai and the Beijing government has characterized ‘Apple’ as a political group, coupled with the approach of sensitive days such as June 4 and July 1, the Hong Kong government has to make the society more ‘peaceful’ by wiping out opposition voices,” said Lui.
“The authority will use all means, including repossessing Next Media’s printing plants and offices, requesting the group to hand over any information and press materials deemed to be related to endangering national security and more. From a business point of view, the big banks could change the terms of their operations with the group, for example calling in debt or raising interest rates.”
On the same day as Lai’s assets were frozen, Taiwan’s Apple Daily, also a Next Media company, said that due to unbearable operating losses, loss of advertising, and the deterioration of the political situation in Hong Kong, it would stop issuing paper copies and focus resources on developing its news website.
The news aroused much discussion among Taiwanese citizens, and people were seen rushing around looking to purchase a copy of the last issue.
The crackdown on Apple Daily has aroused public anger. Many people have responded by buying Apple Daily and supporting the media. In an interview by Apple Daily, Hong Kong citizen Mr. Chan said that it was unfair for the Security Bureau to freeze the private property of Jimmy Lai, and he himself did not want Apple Daily to be banned, “because there is no newspaper more representative than Apple Daily, which reports the facts that other newspapers may not report,” he said.
Mr. Wong, a loyal reader of Apple Daily, believes that a society should have a voice of opposition to monitor the government’s operation, and Apple Daily plays such a monitoring role.
Since the massive 2019 protests, the international community has expressed its support for the people of Hong Kong, but Beijing and the city government have yet to stop efforts to suppress public opinion.
On May 17, 10 more Hong Kong pro-democracy activists were charged with various bogus offenses under the NSL, including organizing, inciting and participating in an unauthorized assembly on October 1, 2019. Jimmy Lai was once again among the charged.
The verdict in his case is scheduled to be announced on May 28.