Opinion | Hong Kong’s Last Gasp

It took just six days to shut down Apple Daily.

It’s a measure of the brutality of the crackdown on Hong Kong that the end could come so swiftly for Apple Daily, a brash, 26-year-old pro-democracy tabloid that had never shied away from criticizing Beijing.

On Thursday, June 17, 500 police officers raided the newspaper’s offices, arresting five staff members on suspicion of collusion with foreign nations over articles that called for sanctions on Hong Kong and China. By the next Wednesday, the paper was printing its final issue, unable to operate because the government had frozen its accounts.

And just like that, another of Hong Kong’s institutions was gone.

The closure of Apple Daily represents a tremendous narrowing of press freedom. As the journalist Daisy Li Yuet-wah put it, there are no longer just red lines for the news media, but a red web, or even a red sea.

That red sea is now swamping Hong Kong. On June 21, a man who hung a flag with a banned protest slogan outside his home was taken away with a bag over his head, on suspicion of uttering seditious words. Books have disappeared from library shelves, a new film censorship system is being introduced, and textbooks are being rewritten with a national security focus.

Hong Kongers have experienced a litany of loss over the past year, as a sweeping national security law imposed last June has undermined cherished institutions. The prized independence of the judicial system is no more, because the legislation supersedes the common law. In an ominous move, pro-Beijing politicians this month effectively blocked a judicial appointment for the first time.

The city’s feisty political scene has been suffocated by an electoral overhaul that prevents pro-democracy candidates from running. Every candidate now has to undergo police vetting that will ensure only “patriots” sit in the legislature.

Many of the pro-democracy camp’s best-known figures are already behind bars: 47 were charged in February with conspiracy to commit subversion after holding informal primaries for candidates; others have been jailed for illegal assembly for attending protests. This is an old-school political purge carried out by “lawfare,” using the legal system as a weapon. The effect is to criminalize a generation of politicians and activists.

Almost every government department, individual and organization is affected by the legislation. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed chief executive, has declared, “We have to review all our systems.” It’s a far cry from her assurances, on the day the law was enacted, to the United Nations Human Rights Council that it would target only an “extremely small minority” of lawbreakers.

The legislation is remaking Hong Kong in China’s image. In the past month alone, the annual vigil to commemorate the democracy protesters killed at Tiananmen Square in 1989 was banned, and the annual July 1 protest march, which marks the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control, was canceled.

And so what many Hong Kongers most dreaded has come to pass: an accelerating crackdown on the very freedoms that distinguished Hong Kong from China. Not too long ago Hong Kongers stayed up through the night watching livestreams of police officers firing tear gas at protesters and beating them with truncheons. The current assault — less visible, but no less violent — is on the public sphere itself.

Hong Kongers fear what the next target will be after Apple Daily. The red waves are lapping at digital media outlets: The pro-democracy Stand News is already taking down online content. Others wonder whether the red sea will swamp international news outlets, which could feel compelled to pull their remaining correspondents from Hong Kong for their own safety as the government prepares legislation to combat “fake news.”

Attacks by the state-run Chinese media on the outspoken Bar Association are spooking the legal community, with foreign judges, allowed to serve under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, withdrawing from the territory’s courts. The Roman Catholic Church is in the cross hairs; this month banners warning of “evil cults” appeared outside seven churches offering Masses to remember the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

Hong Kong’s vibrant, cacophonous civil society is being muzzled. As a result, there is an exodus of Hong Kongers making the wrenching decision to leave all they know since they see no future in their home.

Their sense of alarm has been reinforced by a government reshuffle late last week, which entrenches hard-line security officials at the very top of the civil service. It is the latest dark joke that this move literally makes Hong Kong a police state — and five of its top officials now are under sanctions from the U.S. government for undermining the city’s autonomy and restricting its freedoms.

Many agree that worse is still to come. Using history as a guide, the China scholar Geremie Barmé is predicting that re-education programs and centers will be the next step in Beijing’s campaign of coercive ideological control.

And yet, many Hong Kongers are determined to pursue what they see as the right moral path, no matter the cost. Jimmy Lai, the jailed founder of Apple Daily, is one example. He correctly predicted that the national security legislation would make the operation of the free press “not just difficult but dangerous,” yet he has vowed to continue. “What keeps me going is I believe I am doing the right thing,” he told me when I interviewed him last June.

That sentiment was underlined by the fact that all one million copies of Apple Daily’s “obituary issue” sold out, a feat in a city of 7.5 million people. It was also shown through the actions of the Apple Daily journalists who stayed until the end to put out a final edition despite the escalating risks.

Beijing, so used to enforcing its will by fiat, appears to be accelerating its moves to turn Hong Kong into another mainland city. But it should note the words of Apple Daily’s farewell letter: “When an apple is buried beneath the soil, its seed will become a tree filled with bigger and more beautiful apples.”

Louisa Lim is a senior lecturer at the Center for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.”

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