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Apple Daily mourners will be in no mood to celebrate the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party along with President Xi Jinping.   © Reuters
China up close

Analysis: On party's centennial, China drifts further from world

The media crackdown, based solely on domestic concerns, will one day backfire

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

TOKYO -- Back in 1989, as China plunged into political upheaval following the Tiananmen Square crackdown, it became difficult to buy simple items like T-shirts.

Most Western students on the mainland returned home. For the small number of Japanese students who remained, going to Hong Kong was one of the few ways to buy basic goods.

Once in Hong Kong, these students went straight to Giordano, a fast-fashion brand with stores in busy shopping districts and other locations. The clothes were affordable and colorful.

Jimmy Lai is the legendary entrepreneur who founded and expanded Giordano internationally. In 1995, six years after Tiananmen, he founded the Apple Daily newspaper.

It was the crackdown that prompted Lai to venture into the cutthroat news business; he believed that the tragedy was the first step toward a free and open China, and that democracy would one day take hold.

In 1994, Lai lashed out at then Chinese Premier Li Peng, who had led the crackdown, in a column for a magazine he launched before the Apple Daily. As a result, the just-opened Giordano store in Beijing was forced to suspend operations.

This prompted Lai to wash his hands of the management of Giordano by divesting his stake.

When Apple Daily was founded, it carried the catchphrase, "If there is one apple every day, no one can fool me."

The 72-year-old Lai, who only completed primary school, embodies "the Hong Kong dream."

Four years older than Chinese President Xi Jinping, Lai spent his early years in a mainland China that the president also experienced. In 1960, he fled to Hong Kong, under British rule, amid the failure of the 1958-1961 Great Leap Forward, a campaign launched by Mao Zedong. He was 12 at the time.

Lai's home city is Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, not far from Hong Kong. Ironically, the city Lai abandoned went on to experiment with reform and capitalism, which ended up allowing journalists to copy, albeit in a limited way, Hong Kong's commercial reporting style.

Most representative of this was the investigative reporting by Nanfang Zhoumo, or Southern Weekly, a weekly newspaper published by the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Media Group.

Unlike the People's Daily, the condescending mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, Nanfang Zhoumo resonated with people across the country for its boots-on-the-ground coverage and willingness to listen to the voices of the people.

By the end of the 1990s, it was Nanfang Zhoumo alone flying off the shelves of Beijing newsstands.

Within the allowed space, journalists and editors pushed the envelope.

In areas known for heavy corruption, officials dreaded a visit by Nanfang reporters.

At the time, there were also calls for financially independent newspapers in China. Many watched as the experiment to create a "newspaper that sells," was undertaken in Guangdong.

It was at a time when Guangdong was becoming the "world's factory." Guangzhou, the center of the province, was in a unique position, witnessing brisk business travel between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Stemming the flow of information between the big metropolises was impossible.

As long as it did not endanger party rule, the newspaper was allowed to pursue independent reporting, serving as a public tool to correct societal ills.

For a brief moment, mainland journalism inched slightly closer to that of Hong Kong.

Those were the days.

In 2010, Chinese pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize while in jail. The Chinese government reacted angrily and did not allow Liu to leave China to attend the award ceremony in Norway.

The famous ceremony was held with Liu's chair deliberately left empty -- a statement that was broadcast around the world, helping the international community to see how irregular of a country China was.

Did the Southern Metropolis Daily in 2010 congratulate imprisoned pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo on the occasion of his winning the Nobel Peace Prize?   © Kyodo

The Southern Metropolis Daily, also published by the Nanfang Media Group, ran a satirical collage on its front page showing three empty chairs and five cranes. In Chinese, he, crane, is a homonym for congratulations.

A significant change began coming over mainland China in 2013, and again Guangzhou was at the forefront. The so-called Nanfang Zhoumo incident rocked the Chinese media world, shortly after Xi became party chief.

At the time, it was unclear what kind of person Xi was. So much so that there were expectations he might usher in political, media and other freedoms.

In its 2013 New Year's edition, Nanfang Zhoumo initially tried to publish an article titled "the Chinese Dream and the dream of constitutional government."

But party censors intervened, and the weekly's executive editors were forced to rewrite the article. The rewrite took place while the reporter who wrote the article was on vacation.

Angry journalists and editors as well as outside activists held demonstrations.

After the Nanfang Zhoumo incident, the atmosphere changed. Media control became visibly stricter, and many Nanfang Zhoumo employees left the weekly.

Xi's instructions in February 2016 dealt a further blow to media freedom.

The Chinese leader made a rare and high-profile inspection tour of the People's Daily, Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television, or CCTV --- all state-run organizations -- and demanded they pledge allegiance to the party.

"The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must act as if the 'party' was their surname," Xi was quoted as saying during the inspection tour. Chinese newspapers published articles with the headline introducing Xi's comment.

Police urge a wheelchair-bound supporter of the Southern Weekly to leave an area near the newspaper's office in Guangzhou on Jan. 10, 2013.   © Reuters

It signaled stricter controls ahead, and all Chinese media outlets were eventually told to serve the party.

The Southern Metropolis Daily used its front page to make one last attempt at dissent. When readers saw the tabloid's front-page report of Xi's diktat, they found a hidden message.

Just below the headline of the top story lurked a photo linked to another piece of news -- about people scattering at sea the ashes of a senior party official known as the father of economic reforms in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. The official had died a short time earlier.

The short headline accompanying the photo read, "The soul returns to the sea."

But the last few characters of the main headline and those of the photo's headline spelled out, "the death of the soul of Chinese media."

Now the tighter controls are spilling into Hong Kong.

The student-led pro-democracy protests dubbed the "Umbrella Movement" erupted in Hong Kong in 2014.

Fearing public opinion, China's central government decided to establish the Hong Kong national security law, bypassing the special administrative region's own legislature.

And with that diktat, Jimmy Lai's "Hong Kong dream" was crushed. The Apple Daily founder -- who used to be sought out for advice from the likes of Tadashi Yanai, chairman, president and CEO of Japan's Fast Retailing, which operates the Uniqlo chain -- was incarcerated. His paper was forced to cease publication as authorities tightened their stranglehold on it financially.

Beijing prepares to celebrate the Chinese Communist Party's centennial.   © Reuters

Wednesday marked the anniversary of the Hong Kong national security law taking effect. Meanwhile, the CCP celebrates the 100th anniversary of its establishment on Thursday.

People around the world witnessed Hong Kongers queuing to buy the last edition of the Apple Daily, a record 1 million copies of which were printed, more than 10 times the usual number.

Longtime readers and others formed queues to buy the last edition on June 24 while holding umbrellas in the rain. It was a moving final scene of an extraordinarily vivid documentary.

These Apple Daily mourners will be in no mood to watch the extravagant centenary celebrations to be held in Beijing.

China and the world, meanwhile, are drifting further apart. While U.S. President Joe Biden describes "a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies," the Xi administration provides living proof.

Was there no way of saving Apple Daily in the name of "one country, two systems?"

The questionable choice, based solely on domestic concerns, will one day boomerang and hit the party in the face. With the world increasingly watching China with skepticism, one cannot but think this will be the case.

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