Bearing Witness to the End of Hong Kong's Free Press

My conversation with an intrepid Apple Daily reporter.

Supporters hold copies of the final issue of the Apple Daily newspaper in front of the company’s headquarters in Hong Kong on June 24, 2021. (Geovien So/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

For 26 years, the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily was a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party. On Thursday June 24, after its founder was jailed, its assets frozen, its offices ransacked by hundreds of police officers, and five of its top editors and executives arrested, the paper printed its very last edition.

The next morning, I spoke to a dogged young reporter who saw it all unfold. She didn’t want me to use her name for fear of government reprisal. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation we had on the podcast.

Jane Doe: Hello?

Bari Weiss: Can you hear me?

JD: Yeah, yeah, you can hear me as well? 

BW: I can hear you great.

JD: That’s great.  

BW: Thank you. I know it’s been a crazy week, and I so appreciate you making the time. 

JD: Yeah. Thank you. 

BW: I imagine that, given that you’re a reporter, you’ve interviewed lots of people who haven’t wanted you to use their name for a variety of reasons. And today you’re in the position of you not wanting us to use yours. I wanted to start there and ask you: why?

JD:  It’s like a police state now in Hong Kong. Reporters, especially those who are working in Apple Daily, are now being targeted because our media company is pro-democratic and they think we are trying to do something to destroy the stability of Hong Kong. Actually, I think what we are doing is just speaking the truth and speaking to what Hong Kong people really want to say and express to the Hong Kong government.

BW: Have you always wanted to be a reporter?

JD: Yes, I have always wanted to be a reporter because I think it’s a very meaningful job. It’s actually not a job. Like, I don’t work to earn money. I’m not sure how it goes in other places apart from Hong Kong, but reporters here have very low salaries. I think why we become reporters is because we want to speak the truth and we want to uphold justice and freedom and democracy like everyone does all around the world. As a reporter, Apple Daily is the first paper I worked for, and I think it is the only media company that I would ever work in Hong Kong. 

BW: Why would that be the only paper that you would want to work for in Hong Kong?

JD: I mean, this is the only newspaper in Hong Kong that can speak the voice of Hong Kong people. Most printed media, they will just speak or write what the government wants them to. We are the only print media that will interview the protesters to let their real opinions show up in Hong Kong. So I think this is very precious. It’s what we call freedom of speech and freedom of press. 

BW: In your reporting in 2019, and more generally covering the increasingly repressive environment in Hong Kong, did you witness people get arrested? Did you witness violence?

JD: Oh, yeah, sure. All the time. It’s very heartbreaking and it somehow makes me want to give up at some moments. There’s a real pressure on every reporter. It really tears us up, actually. Last year when 200 policemen went into our company and later our boss got arrested, I gave my resignation letter to my boss, because I felt like I couldn’t stand it anymore. I feel like I have some PTSD. It’s not that serious, actually, but I just feel like my whole life got torn up and I just felt so emotional every day. But then, afterwards I felt like, well, this is like my responsibility. If one reporter gives up at this time, there will be fewer reporters in Hong Kong.

BW: So you were seriously thinking about resigning and you wrote your resignation letter, but then ultimately decided not to? 

JD: Yeah. 

BW: What did your family think of your work as a reporter? Were they proud of the fact that you worked at Apple?

JD: So actually, my whole family, my parents and my little brother, they all work for the government. So when I got the chance to work in Apple Daily three years ago my whole family got so mad. My mom always puts some interview letters on my desk when I go back home because she wants me to work for the government as well. But of course, I won't listen to them. I never listen to my parents, actually, and I don’t think we need to listen to our parents. My dad is someone who really supports the government, so I already gave up on him, but my mom has actually changed a lot because of the protests in 2019. She actually sent me a message on the last day of Apple Day.  She said, ‘I’m so proud of you. You have really done a great job, and I just want to hug you and cry together.’ You know, that night a lot of Hong Kong people cried together just because of the death of Apple Day.

BW: Yeah. 

JD: I think she represents a lot of normal Hong Kong people who maybe at first they disliked Apple Daily for its stances. Especially in the very old days of Apple Daily, many people in Hong Kong thought it was an unhealthy newspaper. I think under these circumstances, and after 2019, we really spoke the truth. We speak things that no one dares to speak, and it changed a lot of Hong Kong people’s perception of Apple Daily. We had our last meal in Apple Daily in the canteen last night, and my boss said that he feels very, very proud that Apple Daily ended in this way because a lot of Hong Kong people support us. I think for other print media, if they have a death like this, no one will cry for it. But they will cry for Apple Daily. 

crying

JD: I’m sorry. I just feel so sad, you know? I’m so sorry, wait for a moment.

crying

JD:  A lot of colleagues have been crying this week because we saw that our bosses and other colleagues were being sent to jail. It’s just so ridiculous. I mean, we are just reporters. And all the things we did were right. 

BW: I’m really moved by hearing that your mom, who had been critical of the paper, texted you saying that she was proud of you and understood the symbol of what this newspaper meant and what its closure means about what’s happening to Hong Kong. My understanding is that over the past two week there was another major raid in the newsroom with five executives getting arrested. Were you there that day and did you witness it?

JD: No. When I woke up, the first thing that I saw on my phone was the notification, saying that our colleagues were arrested. That was last Friday, right?  It feels like a year already. So many things happen within this week. So last Friday, because the policemen were in our company they blocked all entrances and exits. We couldn’t be inside unless we were in the company at that moment. So I went back there at like 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. that day, and when I got back to my seat, I found that my seat was raided. It was totally raided. They took my hard disk.

BW: Did they take your computer? 

JD: Yes.

BW: What was the last story that you were working on before they took your computer and your hard drive. Do you remember?

JD: I was working on some education stories, and it’s very interesting because I had saved my transcript on the drive as a word document, and after they took my drive, I realized that I had to re-do the whole thing. 

So the transcript is like 10,000 Chinese words and I had to retype all of them. And it was really stressful because on Monday we were told that the last day is today. We heard the news this past Monday. So I had to re-do the whole thing at a super crazy pace because I had to rush before the death of our newspaper. 

BW: I saw some really moving videos online of people applauding the editors. And I saw pictures of what looked like dozens, maybe hundreds of people on staff on the roof of the building. Did you participate in all of that?

JD: Yes. I’m one of them. We went onto the roof because we knew that there were a lot of readers and supporters who were standing outside our company and they were waving their mobile phone lights and saying something like, ‘Cheer up’ and  ‘We’ll keep fighting for Apple Daily.’ They kept shouting stuff like this to encourage the people who are working in Apple Daily, and we could really hear them. It was a very touching moment. And then we turned on our lights as well, and we also shouted things like, ‘Hong Kongers, Keep Going’ and ‘Never Give Up.’ Things like that. 

BW: The last thing I want to ask you is a big question. For people that are listening to this who maybe have never heard of Apple Daily or don’t know that much about Hong Kong, what do you want them to understand about what this newspaper means and what its closing signifies for where Hong Kong is heading?

JD: Freedom of press is really so important to upholding justice and democracy in our society. If you do not have this power, who can speak the truth and who can monitor the government and the people who are in charge and have power? No one can do that if you don’t have freedom of press. I really respect my colleagues. They just want to keep going. Even if they are being sent into jail, they will still hold their pencil very tightly. And even when they imagine that, ‘Maybe tomorrow I'll be sent into a jail,’ what they are thinking in their mind is that they want to finish what they haven't finished. They want to finish the whole article even if they have to finish it from jail. This really touched me. I can see the persistence of my colleagues in Apple Daily, and I they really have my respect. People all around the world should respect these very brave journalists as well. I hope people, not only those in Hong Kong, can understand what happened in Apple Daily and also treasure what they have in their own home country as well.  

BW: I just want to say that I have the most profound and deep respect for you and for all of your colleagues, and one of the reasons that I wanted to talk to you is because the values that you are articulating so movingly and powerfully right now, the values that democracy is based on, that are being taken away from you and other Hong Kong people, are the ones that I think too many people in my country often take for granted. And so it’s very powerful to hear them articulated by someone who is sacrificing for them and who was part of a company and an institution that did so much over the past 26 years to uphold those values. You have my utmost respect and admiration and that whenever you decide you want to pick up your pencil again, you have a home with me.

JD: Thank you so much.