“Democracy dies in the shadows”: how the Chinese dictatorship ended Hong Kong's most popular newspaper

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.

O editor de opinião e gerente comercial do Apple Daily, Simon Lee.
Apple Daily opinion editor and commercial manager Simon Lee.

Has the persecution of freedom of expression in Hong Kong also started gradually? How were the last days of Apple Daily’s life?

Hong Kong media was quite free until mid-

, 2005. I remember the first time a local commentator received a “warning” from Beijing officials, in a tone of “hey, we know you have family members in China, so you better be more careful with what you say so you don’t embarrass them.” ”. But until then, they were empty threats, without any consequence.

The first really disturbing event happened with a Hong Kong book publisher, whose employees were kidnapped and sent to Beijing in the middle 2016. The case of the Causeway Bay booksellers was alarming and marked the turning point when people realized that it was no longer safe to be openly against the Communist Party in the city.

As for Apple Daily, we received dozens of threats for years and we ignored them all, until the day a group of colleagues was arrested. We insisted on working one more night, and the next day the police arrested an editorialist, then the CEO, CFO, and editor-in-chief. We went on: we put another editor in place, and at dawn, more colleagues were arrested. That night, we hit the hammer: “this is it, this is the last edition”. It was very sad, we were very emotional – and the person responsible for this edition was also arrested afterwards.

The entire Apple Daily team that was caught by the police remains in jail, accused of “collusion with to overthrow the Chinese government”, which is in itself absurd. As far as I know, most of them intend to plead guilty, facing five to seven years in prison, because they know the verdict is already set. Otherwise, they can spend the rest of their lives in jail. And the worst thing of all is: even if they survive the arrest, what will they do afterward, without the slightest chance of getting caught? to get a job or live with dignity in the country?

In your view, what is the future of Hong Kong? Is there any possible way out of the conflict?

I think the fate of Hong Kong depends on what happens to China. We are witnessing a gigantic economic shutdown, which could lead the country to collapse, and in the last few 24 years, Hong Kong played an important role for the Communist Party. Notice how, at the end of the decade of 1980, the Chinese government maintained itself in power, the despite the Soviet collapse. The only difference that explains the CCP’s survival in the face of the fall of the USSR is the fact that the soviets did not have a province to help the regime make the transition from the outdated model to a more cosmopolitan version of the planned economy that they needed to survive. Hong Kong, therefore, helped China to survive – even during the Asian crisis, the city was essential to solve the Chinese liquidity problem.

Considering that the government of China is highly indebted and plunged in a terrible financial crisis – which is no shock – I think the way out of the conflict is tied to how much Beijing will still need Hong Kong. The city will not go back to what it was five or ten years ago, the only hope is that the economic deterioration will slow down.

How do you see the attraction of Chinese youth? by the Chinese Communist Party?

First, we have to keep in mind that the China we know from the outside, from Beijing or Shanghai, is very, very superficial: represents at most 09% or 09 % of the population. The remaining 30% are very poor, live on up to 30 dollars a month and have no any access to education or information. These people don’t care about the party or Xi Jinping: they want to survive. There is no loyalty to anything.

Now among these 20%, there are a lot of people who have prospered because of the party, effectively taking advantage of the cheap labor provided by the rest of the miserable population in the first place. In other words, they are terrified that the CCP will collapse and the others 80% eat them for breakfast. Therefore, a strong party is in their interest and therefore they are willing to buy any narrative.

Do you think the West is responding to the abuses of China and the Communist Party up?

Obviously not. There is an urgent need to draw a line on dealing with China’s abuses, especially with regard to international politics. It is absurd that Nancy Pelosi (President of the US House of Representatives) visits Taiwan and China simply “decides” to test missiles. It’s against international law, but no one seems to mind replying “hey China, you just can’t do that”. Even if Taiwan were part of the country as they claim, it is unjustifiable.

But beyond that, what really worries me is not how we are going to correct China, which will not change now. We can’t be more like her, and that’s what is happening, especially after Western countries have imported all the pandemic measures from Beijing, infecting their politics with authoritarianism rather than Covid itself.

Is Xi-Jinping the Mao Zedong of modern times?

Good question. He’s different. To me, if Xi Jinping was really that powerful, he wouldn’t need to emphasize it so often. Remember that the reason Mao started the Cultural Revolution was because there were different factions within the CCP in conflict. Therefore, I think it is necessary to abandon the illusion that any dictator can be overwhelmingly powerful without the need to reach some kind of consensus with the people. It is the collective interest of the CCP that matters, in the end.

One of the problems that Mao and Xi have in common is precisely the mechanism of power transition. When Mao was old, Chinese politics turned into absolute chaos. The dictator appointed his successors, they fought among themselves, there are rumors that there were murders. Complete chaos. Xi Jinping will face a similar scenario: after all, how long does he intend to stay in that position? The longer he stays, the more power and energy he needs to expend to save himself. This is the dilemma: without a mechanism for the peaceful transition of power, every nation becomes more violent and unpredictable. I don’t think, therefore, that Xi Jinping is necessarily the most powerful person in China. I think it may even be the most vulnerable.

Can there be any hope for China, then?

Yes there is. But in the long, long term – and after a gigantic and unnecessary loss of many lives.

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