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Media & Entertainment

Hong Kongers buy stock and newspapers to support Apple Daily

Arrest of founder spurs activists to drive Next Digital shares to 12-year high

People lined up at newsstands around Hong Kong to buy copies of Apple Daily in the early hours of Aug. 11, some for the first time.    © AP

HONG KONG -- Hong Kongers rallied to support Apple Daily, the most critical voice in the city's mainstream media, a day after its founder and several top executives were arrested by police and its offices searched in relation to alleged violations of the national security law imposed on the city in June.

Shares of holding company Next Digital, which had dipped to a new low of 7.5 Hong Kong cents in trading Monday morning, almost reached HK$2, a 12-year high, amid online calls by activists to buy the stock. The stock closed Tuesday at HK$1.10, up fourfold from Monday's close of 25.5 Hong Kong cents.

More than 4 billion shares changed hands, exceeding the company's total outstanding stock of 2.63 billion, as Next was the most heavily traded issue on the Hong Kong exchange for the second straight day. Turnover reached 4.26 billion Hong Kong dollars ($550 million), third behind only Chinese technology heavyweights Tencent Holdings and Meituan Dianping and just ahead of Alibaba Group Holding.

Apple Daily, known for its skeptical reporting on Hong Kong and mainland Chinese affairs, also boosted its print run to 550,000 on Tuesday, nearly eight times its current normal level, to meet a surge in demand.

"Even if the paper is printed blank, I will still buy," said Christine Wong, a 52-year-old housewife who came out to buy a copy at 3 a.m. from a downtown stall. "It is the least I can do to fight back."

The print run for Tuesday had originally been set at 350,000 copies but additional runs were published amid the early-hour sales rush which saw lines form in front of newsstands before distribution trucks arrived and some buyers purchase whole bales to set out for others to take free copies.

"This is Hong Kong people's response to the authorities' barbaric act," said Emily Lau, a former legislator and retired journalist.

A 30-year-old lawyer bought Apple Daily for the first time ever on Tuesday, commenting: "Growing up, we would think Apple Daily is just another tabloid. But now we know how important it is to have a critical voice."

With a cover price of HK$10, the expanded print run Tuesday would bring in HK$4.8 million of extra revenue for Next. In its annual report published last month, it said its average sales per day was 88,685 during the year ended March 31, down 13.5% from the previous year. For many years, the paper vied with Oriental Daily News for the city's top circulation count.

"I am very grateful for some netizens in Hong Kong who are trying to initiate something new to support Apple Daily," said Angel Kwan, a reporter at the newspaper.

Apple Daily also gained more than 20,000 new online subscribers Monday and Tuesday, including almost 3,000 from overseas, according to Louise Wong, a senior executive at Next Digital. Next Magazine, which Wong oversees as publisher, gained over 3,500 online subscribers.

Few Chinese-language media in Hong Kong operate behind a paywall, but Apple Daily has emphasized subscriptions in a strategic shift since last September. In the eight months through March, it generated HK$277 million in online subscription revenue.

Some speculate that investors with mainland Chinese ties may be behind the surge in share buying. Jimmy Lai, Next Digital's founder and chairman, holds 71.3%, but Wong worries that "if someone could get over 5% of the holdings, he or she could ask for a seat on the board."

The Securities and Futures Commission of Hong Kong issued a statement on Tuesday evening warning investors to "exercise extreme caution" in dealing with Next Digital shares. The territory's securities watchdog cited "exceptional increases" in price and turnover of the media company's shares recently.

The commission added it will require the company to make prompt disclosure of "all future developments and information concerning its control, financial position and operations which are likely to materially affect the [stock] price."

Global Times, a Beijing-based newspaper affiliated with the People's Daily, also questioned the stock's soaring price.

Paraphrasing a Chinese academic, it said in an online article Tuesday, "No reasonable investors would invest in a company whose controller has been arrested and may face severe criminal charges, which is of course usually a disaster for a company."

"Any new investor hoodwinked into buying such junk stocks would eventually find themselves losing out," it continued.

Lai and two of his sons as well as activist Agnes Chow were among 10 people arrested Monday by national security police on suspicion of "collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security" and conspiracy to defraud.

The authorities have not elaborated on the allegations but the security law provides for penalties of up to life imprisonment as well as the possibility of prosecution and trial in mainland China.

In its own statement late Monday night, Apple Daily accused the police of overstepping their warrant to search its offices by going through news materials. "In the face of these illegal, unreasonable and barbaric tactics, the staff of Apple Daily will stay fearless and continue speaking the truth amid persecution," it said.

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