Media tycoon Jimmy Lai's arrest sends warning to Hong Kong's free press

Jimmy Lai's arrest shook the foundations of press freedom and raised fears about what might come next. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Right before China retook control of Hong Kong in 1997, tycoon Jimmy Lai started Apple Daily in part to promote democracy in the city. For 25 years, the newspaper survived advertising boycotts and political pressure and never backed off on its tough coverage of the Chinese government and pro-Beijing lawmakers.

But it may not last through the summer. Hong Kong police arrested Lai and several of his top executives on Monday (Aug 10) and sent hundreds of officers to search the Apple Daily offices, a demonstration of the broad potential for the new national security law to silence criticism and dissent beyond pro-democracy protests and activism.

Passed in June, the legislation bars "crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces", as interpreted by the Chinese government and enforced by Beijing's new security office in Hong Kong. Lai's arrest wasn't entirely unexpected, but it still shook the foundations of press freedom in the financial centre and raised fears about what might come next.

For the global business community, which relies on the rule of law and stability that Hong Kong offers, threats to the free press are troubling, said Dr Imogen T. Liu, a political economist affiliated with Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

"Hong Kong is attractive to international investors because it has a reputation for market discipline and transparency that was institutionalised under British rule," she said. "Free speech is part of this liberal image, along with free market competition and government non-intervention."

Journalists have been concerned about China's tightening grip on free speech in Hong Kong at least since 2018, when local authorities declined to renew the work visa of the Asia new editor for the Financial Times. It was thought to be the first expulsion of a foreign journalist since the 1997 handover and suggested a bolder Chinese influence on the city.

Those concerns only grew this year. After the United States placed restrictions on Chinese media, the government in Beijing expelled Americans working for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post and said they weren't welcome in Hong Kong. In July, the New York Times announced it was moving its digital news operation from Hong Kong to Seoul.

The Foreign Correspondents Club, Hong Kong, which advocates for press freedom in Asia, condemned the arrests and newsroom raid on Monday, saying they "signal a dark new phase in the erosion of the city's global reputation."

Last week, the club called for both the US and the Chinese governments to stop using journalists as political canon fodder: "This downward spiral of retaliatory actions aimed at journalists helps no one, not least of all the public that needs accurate, professionally produced information now more than ever."


That statement also said that journalists have reported delays in new or renewed visas, which it called "highly unusual for Hong Kong".

Meanwhile, local outlet the Standard reported that journalist visas were now being vetted by a "national security unit" within the Hong Kong Immigration department, a new process that more closely mirrors China's close scrutiny of foreign media.

Locally, Mr Wilson Li Chung Chak, a freelancer for Britain's ITV and former member of the now-disbanded student activist group Scholarism, was arrested for collusion with a foreign country or external elements, the first time a freelance journalist was charged under the new law, according to the South China Morning Post.

The effects have been chilling. Ms Selina Cheng, an investigative reporter at local news outlet HK01, said senior management has begun to restrict the kinds of stories reporters can work on.

"When editors are worried about getting into trouble, they naturally won't push reporters to do more reporting on topics they don't feel comfortable with," she said.

Even Apple Daily had taken steps to protect its reporters and stopped printing bylines after the law passed.

"Other media outlets looking at what happened to Apple Daily today know that if they speak out against the government - like Apple Daily did - they will face the same consequences," said Mr Martin Lam, a reporter who's covered Hong Kong politics for the paper for 13 years. "They will be more cautious of what they report in the near future."


The new law has also taken aim at literature. Several books by pro-democracy activists were removed from Hong Kong libraries and are currently "under review" to see if they run afoul of the new law.

"Pulling books out of the library, arresting pro-democracy activists - this is exactly how the law is supposed to work," said Mr Jimmy Chan Hing Chi, a political economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "In the long run, as freedom of expression is undermined further and further, Hong Kong's reputation as an international financial centre may gradually erode."

Mr Minh Bui Jones, editor-in-chief of the pan-Asian literary magazine Mekong Review, said less than three weeks after the law passed, his printing company told him it had been ordered by the authorities to stop printing the magazine. Mr Jones' attempts to follow up went unanswered, and he found a different printer.

"I would still like to publish in Hong Kong," said Mr Jones, praising the printers, the location, and the legacy of other Hong Kong-based publications including the Far Eastern Economic Review. "But it's getting harder and harder, and at some point you'll just give up."

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