When a Free Society Becomes a Police State

For 26 years, the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily was a thorn in Beijing’s side. This week, the paper closed for good. What its death means for Hong Kong — and for us all. 


By my lights, the most important news event of this past week was not the New York mayoral primary (my condolences to Andrew Yang). It wasn’t Bitcoin dropping below $30,000. And it certainly wasn’t the new bipartisan infrastructure deal announced by President Biden.

It was the forced closure of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong.

You may not have heard of Apple Daily. I knew of it, but only vaguely. It is — or rather, it was — Hong Kong’s version of the New York Post combined with William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. A tabloid, yes. But also: a voice for freedom. 

Ever since it began publishing in 1995, Apple Daily has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party. Its commitment to democracy and freedom had everything to do with its founder, Jimmy Lai.

It’s not possible to do Lai’s whole story justice in a column — someone should make a blockbuster — but here is the cliffsnotes version: Lai fled mainland China at 12 years old as a stowaway on a fishing boat. He found a job in a Hong Kong sweatshop and eventually worked his way up in the garment trade (or, as we in the Jewish community call it, the shmata business.)

Along the way, he encountered fellow garment workers in New York who introduced him to free-market theorists like Frederick Hayek, Karl Popper and Milton Friedman, with whom he later developed a close relationship. “This is a guy who didn't have any formal schooling past the age of maybe eight,” Mark Simon, who has been Lai’s right hand for the past two decades, told me in an interview this week. “Those books started his real political awakening.”

By the ’80s, Lai had built out his retail empire in Hong Kong; his company, called Giordano after a New York pizza spot, became a wild success. 

But becoming rich wasn’t what changed the course of Lai’s life. The massacre at Tiananmen Square did.

“That's when he went from his economic and intellectual awakening to his political awakening,” said Simon. “I don't want to be too crude, but [Lai] said, ‘I hated the bastards. I knew evil when I saw it. And they are evil.’”

Lai, a devout Catholic, shifted his focus from t-shirts to tabloids and began to build his media empire. The first edition of Apple Daily made its purpose plain: “We are convinced that Hongkongers who are accustomed to freedom will not stay silent in the face of unreasonable restrictions and unfair treatments, for Hongkongers are born with a passion for freedom.”

Lai and the paper lived out that mission.

Prison guards escort Jimmy Lai to a prison van at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Center on December 12, 2020, in Hong Kong. (Li Zhihua/China News Service via Getty Images)

Over the years, Lai’s home was firebombed. His office was ransacked. He was even the target of an assassination attempt. But he refused to shut up.

In 2014, the tycoon took to the streets in solidarity with the students who were leading what became known as the Umbrella Movement. In 2019, when Hong Kongers took to the streets once again, this time millions of them marching against the new extradition bill, Apple Daily printed pro-democracy posters for them to carry. 

When the national security law passed last year, which effectively criminalized criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, Lai knew that it would not end well for him and for Apple Daily. He had more than the means to leave the city. But he refused.

Mark Simon remembers it this way: “Jimmy would tell people all the time, ‘Get out, get out now, it’s 1949.’ Then Jimmy would be told, ‘Why don't you get out? Why don't you get out?’ And he had an answer that I think would surprise some. He would say: ‘I don't want to be an asshole.’ He would say, ‘I've been part of this fight since 1997.’ He said, ‘If I leave now and I leave all these young people here, what kind of guy am I now?’” Last May, Lai gave an interview to Reuters, saying: “What I have, this place gave me. I will fight on till the last day. It will be an honour if I...sacrifice.”

Today, Jimmy Lai sits in a jail cell for “unauthorized assembly.”

Over the past week, the same forces that jailed him came for his newspaper. Hundreds of police officers raided the newsroom. They seized hard drives and laptops. They arrested five of the company’s top executives and editors, who stand accused of collusion with foreign forces and endangering national security. They froze the company’s assets. The swashbuckling, anti-Communist tabloid, the symbol of Hong King’s free press, printed its last edition on Thursday.

They printed a million copies and were sold out by lunch time.

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

There were so many moving pictures and videos of the staff putting the paper to bed. See here. And here. And here. Throngs of readers stood outside the building shouting their support.

Thursday night I spoke to a young journalist who saw it all unfold. She didn’t want me to use her name for fear of government reprisal. 

She’s been at Apple Daily for several years and told me that she’d always wanted to be a reporter. “I'm not sure how it is in other places apart from Hong Kong, but being a reporter has a very low salary. We become reporters because we want to speak the truth and we want to uphold justice and freedom and democracy,” she said.

She told me that Apple Daily was the only place she wanted to work: “It 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 write. 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.”

The past year has been extremely stressful, she said. “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.” But she rescinded the letter, deciding that if she bowed out there would be one fewer reporter left in Hong Kong.

“We had our last meal in the canteen last night,” she recalled. Her boss “said that he feels very, very proud that Apple Daily ends in this way because a lot of Hong Kong people support us. I think a lot of other print media, if they have a death like this, no one will cry for it. But they will cry for Apple Daily,” she said through tears. “I really respect my colleagues. They just want to keep going. Even if they have to be sent into jail. They will still hold their pencil very tightly. And even when they imagine that maybe tomorrow I'll be sent to jail, what they are thinking is: they want to finish what they haven’t finished.” 

She added: “I hope people, not only in Hong Kong, can understand what happened at Apple Daily and also treasure what they have in their own home country as well.”

Perhaps you read all of this and think the following: The Chinese Communist Party is terrible. We hear horrific stories out of China all the time. About how the CCP is carrying out a genocide against Uyghur Muslims and how it is staging videos of people pretending to be happy Uyghurs in an attempt to conceal the truth. About how it indoctrinates its people with censorship and propaganda. About how it disappears people. About how it uses cutting edge technology to spy on its own.

Why should a newspaper closure rank among such atrocities?

I asked that question to Mark Simon: “The Chinese Communist Party has become an expansionist party. They are interested not only in China now, but in the things around China,” he said. “And the killing of Apple Daily is really the largest blow against Hong Kong as a Western civil society.” Jimmy Lai put it this way in a 2019 interview: “What we are fighting for is the first battle of the new cold war.”

In other words: What happens in Beijing doesn’t stay in Beijing. 

Here I’m not just thinking of movie stars like John Cena groveling about calling Taiwan a country; or of NBA stars like Lebron James who claim the mantle of social justice but go mute in the face of the world’s greatest threat to human freedom; or of powerful brands like Apple and Nike that market themselves as progressive but rely on forced labor. (This past week, as Apple Daily shuttered, the CEO of Nike said: “Nike is a brand that is of China and for China.”)

I am also talking about the pandemic we’re still living through. It was China that lied to the world about the nature of Covid-19. It was China that disappeared scientists who tried to blow the whistle early on. In other words: we don’t need to live in mainland China to be affected by the policies and the decisions of the CCP.

If the CCP is willing to do that to the world, if it is willing to swallow up a city of more than 7 million people in broad daylight, crushing the free press, crushing dissent, and jailing journalists, you have to ask yourself: what — or who — will come next? 


For the full story and deeper conversations with Mark Simon and the intrepid Apple Daily reporter, please listen here:

And for those of you who prefer to read rather than listen — though I really hope you listen to this one — transcripts (edited for brevity and clarity) are now available for select episodes of the podcast, including today’s.

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