The puppet government here in Hong Kong is cracking down on the city's most-popular newspaper, the fiercely pro-democracy Apple Daily, and with it killing off press freedom in this city. At stake is the ability to generate authoritative news out of China in general.
On Friday, the authorities charged the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Ryan Law, and publisher, Cheung Kim-hung, with "collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security." They are due to appear in court on Saturday.
Cheung is also CEO of Next Digital, the company that publishes Apple Daily. The two were among five Next Digital executives who were arrested by police at dawn at their homes on Thursday. The other three remain under investigation. Police say they suspect Next Digital "conspired with others" to engage in "hostile activities" against Hong Kong or Communist China.
Now, a "conspiracy" by definition is a "secret plan" to do something unlawful or harmful. "Hostile activities" sounds like you're planning an invasion. "Collusion" conjures up images of Vichy France. "Endangering national security" sounds like a terrorist plot, something like 9/11, or for fans of British history, the Gunpowder Plot.
How ridiculous are these charges? The chief evidence is some 30 articles published in the newspaper since 2019 that recommend sanctions on Hong Kong.
So... not secret, in fact completely the opposite, since the articles were published for all to read. And... not collusion. That requires at least two parties. Are they saying the CIA read the articles? And... surely the very definition of free speech, which is guaranteed in Hong Kong's Basic Law constitution, is being able to speak your mind in a newspaper editorial.
Not in Communist China, where the media is largely state-owned, and always censored. Behind the Bamboo Curtain, you can only expect to hear the "good news story" about China and the outstanding, exceptional, unbeatable and incredibly wise leadership of the Communist Party.
Not in Communist-directed Hong Kong, anymore, either. The city until recently had a famously free press, and a thriving publishing business, particularly of books that would be banned on the mainland. It is very clear that Beijing is now controlling the thought police, via the real police, in Hong Kong. They are colluding to silence Beijing's critics.
But they can't control the people. Apple Daily published a bumper run of 500,000 copies for Friday's newspaper, up from a normal run of around 100,000. That has been selling out as Hong Kongers seek to voice their support for the paper, and the democracy cause. I have a copy here.
Trading in Next Digital shares was halted on Thursday and remained suspended on Friday. The shares are highly likely to see a spike if and when they resume - like meme stocks, buying Next Digital shares has become a badge of honor and means of protest for supporters of the newspaper and pro-democracy cause.
Next Digital stock spiked 94.7% on resumption from its last trading suspension, May 14-26, after the authorities seized the assets of media mogul Jimmy Lai, the newspaper's founder. The shares soared 12-fold from HK$0.09 to HK$1.10 last August when Lai was arrested on charges that were, frankly, concocted, and Apple Daily was raided for the first time. The stock has settled back to HK$0.29 now.
So Thursday marked the second raid on the paper. In conjunction with the arrests of five top staff, whose homes were searched, more than 500 officers also stormed into the newspaper with a warrant to seize "journalistic materials," taking away 44 computers, according to Friday's newspaper.
The authorities have also frozen HK$18 million (US$2.3 million) in assets at three companies linked to Apple Daily. Those three companies were also prosecuted on Friday for "collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security," and told to send executives to West Kowloon Magistrates' Court on Saturday.
The senior superintendent of Hong Kong's newly formed national-security unit said the 30 articles form the "focus" of the alleged "conspiracy," and provide "strong evidence."
"The nature of the articles is very simple, just inciting, requesting the foreign country to impose sanctions to Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China," Li said. "Very straightforward."
So the arrests are a very straightforward attack on the press. It is the first time the National Security Law has been used to seize news-generating materials. Mark Simon, the U.S.-based aide to newspaper owner Lai, says Apple Daily will struggle to pay its staff of around 700 with its accounts frozen.
Lai is now serving a 20-month prison sentence for taking part in three demonstrations against the government. The government, via the police, didn't give permission for the anti-government protests to occur; the courts have subsequently levied excessively heavy sentences for crimes for "unlawful assembly" that are normally punishable by a fine.
Lai also awaits trial under the much-hated National Security Law. That is an ill-defined piece of legislation forced on the city in June 2020 by the Beijing government. He faces a potential life sentence.
The Apple Daily executives are the first journalists charged under the National Security Law. It's noteworthy that the 30-or-so as-yet unidentified articles date back to 2019. The law only went into effect on June 30, 2020, and is not supposed to be retroactive.
The United States in August 2020 imposed sanctions on 11 Hong Kong and Chinese officials for undermining Hong Kong's autonomy, and restricting freedom of expression. That July, the United States ruled that Hong Kong was no longer autonomous enough from China to justify special trade status.
The text of the new law, which was inserted directly into the Hong Kong constitution, was a mystery even to the puppet government until it went into effect. It outlaws essentially all forms of dissent against Beijing - it makes "secession," "subversion," "terrorism" and "collusion" all punishable by a maximum of life in prison. And those are crimes it does not define. The law extends to anyone, anywhere... including you, dear reader!
The vagueness is intentional. Beijing likes to keep its citizens guessing as to what is permissible, to encourage them to self-censor. When Li, the Hong Kong national-security unit chief, was asked if sharing Apple Daily articles is a crime, he said police would have to consider the intention.
"But as a law enforcer, I have some advice for people," Li said. "Do not draw suspicion to yourself, if it is not something you wish to spread."
Coupled with the ongoing expulsion of U.S. journalists from mainland China, this week's events call into question the ability to generate non-propaganda, critical news about China. That's important, for instance, when it's clear there's been an "incident" at a nuclear-power plant about 80 miles away from Hong Kong, but not at all clear what has gone on.
The lack of mainland news sources able to cover stories like that critically leave many China watchers floundering for reliable information. The Hong Kong media has historically provided extensive critical coverage of events inside China. It was also the Hong Kong media that first brought the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan to light in December 2019.
As is usual, the Hong Kong government officials who are collaborating with Beijing called white black, and black white. They are specialists in double talk.
John Lee, Hong Kong's security secretary, denied that the Apple Daily raids and arrests constitute an attack on the press.
"This action has nothing to do with normal journalism work," he said, and is an attack only on the press who endanger the dimly-defined concept of national security. "Normal journalists are different from them. Don't get involved with them, and keep a distance from them."
The Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong, of which I'm a member, says it is "concerned" about the arrests, which I hope is putting it mildly. The club "is concerned that this latest action will serve to intimidate independent media in Hong Kong and will cast a chill over the free press, protected under the Basic Law."