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Media & Entertainment

Hong Kong's Apple Daily yields to 'inevitable fate'

Newspaper critical of Chinese authorities meets end after years of defiance

Even with their final paychecks uncertain, many Apple Daily staff stayed until the final paper's printing late Wednesday night.    © Reuters

HONG KONG -- In its 1995 debut edition, Apple Daily's inaugural editorial directly addressed the timing of its launch just two years ahead of Hong Kong's scheduled return to Chinese rule -- and the start of an uncertain era for the city's previously freewheeling press.

"We are afraid, but we don't want to be intimidated by fear or blinded by pessimism," the editorial said.

On July 1, 1997, the city's first day under Chinese rule, the paper's front-page headline read, "Hong Kong believes in its future."

That belief is under question now as Hong Kong nears the end of its first year under a Beijing-imposed national security law that is drastically reshaping elections, schools, the media and more.

Apple Daily distributed its final edition Thursday morning, capping a week that saw its editor-in-chief, an editorial writer and four other top managers arrested, its offices raided by police and its bank accounts frozen. Just before the paper went to print, its government-controlled landlord served an eviction notice.

Rumors from earlier in the month that the authorities would make Apple disappear before July 1 had come true all too quickly for many Hong Kongers. The date marks not just the anniversary of Britain's handover but also annual mass pro-democracy marches championed by the newspaper and this year, the official 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

A week before the holiday, residents were lined up in the street even before the newspaper's final edition went to print, in a bumper edition of 1 million copies, to be sure of getting their own copy. By morning, many convenience stores and newsstands had sold out of all copies and every paper was gone by day's end.

"Apple Daily will be missed," said a longtime reader who had always paired his morning breakfast of dim sum with juicy Apple news. "But what I miss more is the Hong Kong that could embrace Apple Daily."

Jimmy Lai, now serving a 20-month prison term for his participation in three 2019 demonstrations, understood the risks he was taking by starting Apple Daily.

Lai, who sneaked into Hong Kong from Guangdong Province at the age of 12 in 1960, was forced to sell his controlling stake in clothing chain Giordano after China threatened to close its mainland stores as retribution for his public criticisms of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and his distribution of memorial T-shirts.

He started his media empire with Next Magazine, a glossy weekly that combined celebrity gossip with hard-news investigations. Apple's name came from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the biblical tale of Adam and Eve.

"If there is no evil, no right or wrong, there will be no news," Lai said in the paper's first edition. In early TV commercials, Lai bit an apple behind the memorable slogan, "An apple a day keeps the liars away."

Apple Daily quickly shook up the city's crowded newspaper market with a novel mix of aggressive political reporting, in-depth columns, news of celebrity scandals, lifestyle features, brothel reviews -- and rock-bottom pricing.

Loaded with color photos, Apple sold for 2 Hong Kong dollars (26 cents) when black-and-white, text-heavy incumbents were priced at HK$5. At its peak, the paper could sell over 500,000 copies a day and claim to be the city's top-seller.

The home of Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, 72, was previously firebombed by masked attackers. (Photo by Akiyoshi Inoue)

Controversy has rarely trailed far behind Apple's sensational approach. In 1998, Lai issued a front-page apology after a reporter paid for a man whose wife had recently killed their children and committed suicide to pose in bed with prostitutes in the mainland city of Dongguan. In the first 11 years of its circulation, Apple Daily was cited under the Obscene and Indecent Article Ordinance at least 56 times.

Yet the newspaper also regularly won journalism awards for its investigative reports into corruption in the city and the mainland and other sensitive topics. With its final edition vanishing from shelves Thursday, the paper was a finalist in the Society of Publishers in Asia Awards for a story on the authorities' apparent aerial monitoring of 12 youths who were caught by the Chinese Coast Guard as they sought to flee to Taiwan, and up for two other prizes.

The paper's insubordinate spirit was fueled by journalists who considered receiving threatening anonymous calls part of their "daily routine." Many recalled being detained by police while reporting in the mainland. Apple's offices and Lai's home were firebombed by masked attackers.

There was a business cost to Apple's stance too. Advertisers, particularly the city's government, steered spending away toward other local papers which have come under greater control from Chinese business interests in recent years. With the city government and its allies seeking to rally the public behind unpopular policies, every paper but Apple sometimes comes wrapped in full-page laudatory advertising.

Parent company Next Digital has recorded five straight years of net losses and is due to report results for the year ended March 31 on Monday. Lai has pumped in HK$765 million in personal loans to keep the company running.

Some 600,000 online subscribers helped Apple keep going through dwindling newsstand sales too. City residents have also banded together through Apple's recent trials, taking out ads themselves and buying extra copies or even Next shares.

A separate Taiwan edition of Apple Daily, launched in 2003, will continue to publish online for now after ceasing print distribution last month. Yet even some of Apple's would-be Hong Kong adversaries are mourning its loss.

"I didn't always like its reporting, yet without it, Hong Kong feels less of itself," said a local pro-Beijing figure who refused to be named. "But it's an inevitable fate."

As the final edition went to press Wednesday night, hundreds of supporters ringed its headquarters, waving mobile-phone flashlights and offering cheers to reporters staying until the end. Reporters continued to post dozens of articles and videos even as the shutdown of Apple's website approached.

"Over these years I have learned that the word 'conviction' has two meanings. You can use it when someone is convicted of a crime," wrote a court reporter in her last story. "Or it can mean faith and firm beliefs. And I hope everyone remembers the latter."

A cartoon widely circulated on social media Thursday echoed the sentiment: "They thought they killed an apple, but they didn't know its seeds are already rooted in our hearts and we will grow apple trees one day."

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