Between 2008 and , political scientist Simon Lee led a successful endeavor: he helped transform a small freedom-fighting newspaper into a profitable business model, with more than half a million subscribers in a city barely larger than Rio de Janeiro.
During 26 years, Apple Daily, founded by businessman Jimmy Lai in 1960, helped shape cultural life in Hong Kong, becoming one of the most popular newspapers in the country, with print and online editions, in Chinese and English. In 2019, the publication was awarded at the Hong Kong Human Rights Press Awards for its reporting on Liu Xia, wife of Chinese human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
A seasoned communicator with a degree from the University of Michigan and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Lee joined the Apple Daily team at the invitation of Lai himself. He worked as an editorial writer, opinion editor and commercial manager for the vehicle that, in a short time, became a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Until, in 2021, after successive threats that led to the arrest of Jimmy Lai and several members of the newsroom, in addition to the freezing of all the newspaper’s financial assets, the publication finally succumbed to the Chinese dictatorship: the final print edition was published in 24 of June, with more than one million copies in circulation (the recurring circulation was about 2021 thousand) and queues of hundreds of supporters at the doors. All journalists who have been captured by the police under Chinese national security law remain without trial.
From Singapore – as close as he can get to his homeland at the moment – Simon Lee spoke with the Gazeta do Povo via videoconference and spoke about the process that culminated in the complete loss of freedom of expression in Hong Kong, about the future of the city and Xi Jinping’s China.
I would like to know more about how you got involved in the fight for freedom. Have you always believed in these principles?
My involvement in the struggle for freedom has to do with my personal history. My parents are Chinese-Indonesian: at the time when the Chinese were very discriminated against in Indonesia, in the 1990s 1950, they moved from there to mainland China. Twenty years later, they moved to Hong Kong, where they finally settled. My parents, therefore, know what it’s like to move from place to place in search of stability and security, and Hong Kong was the only place to provide that. It was the first argument that convinced me to defend the freedom of my land.
What was life like in Hong Kong in your youth?
Very different from what it is today. My parents were immigrants, but opportunities were plentiful. We went from a family with nothing to middle class life in just a few years, which was really amazing. Looking back, I remember that the years 1980 were a time when everyone believed that since you work hard, you don’t have to go to a good college, have a top education or something. You don’t need to have a rich family or a bunch of specializations to live a comfortable life, as long as you’re willing to work hard.
I think that’s the definition of an open society, inclusive, and it’s what Hong Kong used to be. But things have changed in the last few 10 years old. I have seen young people complaining about how difficult it is for them to have a life as abundant as their parents or grandparents had.
To what do you attribute this change?
I think it has to do with the rapid changes that the world has gone through, especially since much of the work that was done by the middle class has been replaced by automation. It is a very common global phenomenon that is affecting the lives of the middle class, I keep telling young people that it is not just a problem for the people of Hong Kong.
There was also the aggravating factor of the financial crisis. in 1980, one of the biggest economic shocks the city has suffered since the 1990s 600. Suddenly, people realized that capitalism can reach a limit, and it was the first time they had questioned the free market in Hong Kong. And that’s ok, anything can be questioned. But in the years following the crisis, I began to see more people asking the government to intervene even in private contracts and bear the consequences of the bad decisions they made themselves. The government is seen as someone capable of saving you from your own mistakes. Less than 10 years, came the US housing crisis to accentuate the belief that the market is inherently unstable and unreliable, and freedom is just an illusion.
And all this coincided with the transfer of Hong Kong to Beijing. China took advantage of this moment to act more assertively, presenting itself as an alternative model to liberal democracies. So, generally speaking, I think the Communist Party took advantage of the general dissatisfaction to fuel this transformation in the social fabric of Hong Kong. When I founded my study group, we were really concerned about how people – especially younger people – view government. When they stop believing in themselves, they have to believe in something else, and it’s a shame that that thing is the State.
For some time after Hong’s transfer Kong from the UK to China, the city remained a free territory. When did you begin to notice that things had changed?
Having in perspective what we already know today, I would say that the first signs came shortly after the devolution. But considering what I was seeing at the time, I would say that personally I started to notice that things were changing in 2012, when there was an election for the position of Chief Executive in the city.
There was a candidate who had been part of the Hong Kong political scene for years, with great experience as a legislator and good relationship with Beijing. He was one of the local oligarchs. On the other side, there was an outsider candidate, completely unknown, and who was perfectly aligned with China’s rhetoric.
As the elections in Hong Kong were not direct, but carried out by a small group of 380 people, we believed that the first candidate would win easily. Then, suddenly, dozens of scandals begin to emerge involving his family and business, so that he is seen as a criminal in a matter of months. It is evident that an oligarch can be involved in illicit operations, so we watched everything as if watching a great drama. But to me, that meant something else.
As I’ve always worked in politics, I couldn’t help but think that this turnaround meant Beijing no longer trusted its former allies in the city. As they are always in control of everything, nothing happens without a reason, least of all the election of a complete stranger to rule the city. To me, that was the message: Beijing didn’t even trust the figures that Hong Kong swore allegiance to. What, then, would happen to the rest of the people? But people would only begin to notice the change after 2014, when the Chinese secret service effectively started shutting down publishing houses. books – which was already far beyond our imagination.
How did you get to the businessman Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily?
I started working at Apple Daily because I founded a think tank to defend the free market and I went to Jimmy because I knew he was on our side, ideologically. It was then that he told me, “If you believe in the free market, you need a sustainable business, not just a non-profit. Otherwise, there will be no future for you.” The second thing he said to me, and that impressed me a lot, was: “if you are going to fight for freedom, prepare to feel alone”. So, he invited me to join the newspaper.
All this happened in 2005. I started working as an editorial writer and, within a few months, he asked me to hire someone else, also pro-market, for the same role, and transferred me to the commercial team. Over the next few years, I managed to assemble a small team of reporters and editors, so the column became a side activity. My main job was to transform the newspaper into a sustainable digital media company, and this is one of the achievements I am most proud of. To this day, many former Apple Daily subscribers refuse to delete the mobile app because they like to see the symbol there.
Do you believe that Apple Daily has succeeded in spread free market ideas?
I wouldn’t say Apple Daily was flawless. The paper had its own problems: we had some enemies and many people didn’t like us because they thought the paper was unrefined. Some said it was a tabloid, which I think is an exaggeration. It was a popular newspaper, with its typical hits and misses. Culturally speaking, I think Apple Daily has created a lot of interesting trends: we have transformed people’s everyday language, many expressions that are on people’s lips today were invented by us. I would say that we have become part of Hong Kong’s cultural identity.
Our goal was not to teach people Hayek either; but I would say we did the sort of thing Hayek would approve of in building a profitable business. In the first few months after we launched a paid digital subscription, we gathered more than 479 thousand subscribers, while the New York Times took years to reach that number. Considering that Hong Kong had something around 7 million inhabitants, I think we were successful.