It was not exactly a surprise yesterday when Hong Kong police arrested Next Digital founder Jimmy Lai, four executives at the company, and his two sons, and then raided the office of his Apple Daily newspaper - with over 100 police officers. Many journalists in Hong Kong predicted an early move against the Apple Daily when I spoke to them over the past month about the impact of the new National Security Law, which came into effect on 1 July. After all, Lai, an outspoken critic of the Communist Party of China and a vocal advocate for local democracy, had long been a thorn in the side of mainland authorities, and they made no secret of their disdain for him.
Even so, the scope of the arrests and the ridiculously ostentatious raid and search of journalist material was shocking. It was obviously intended not just to thwart Lai and his media group, but to intimidate Hong Kong’s entire community of journalists and hammer a few nails in the coffin of press freedom. It might not succeed, at least on its own.
Under British rule, which ended in 1997, press freedom in Hong Kong was absolute, with a lively scene of dueling pro- and anti-communist media. Apple Daily fit squarely into the anti-communist camp, but also provided extensive plain old local news coverage. After the handover, the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented a gradual erosion of the scope of that freedom, but it has still been robust. It turns out that the habit of speaking, or writing, freely is hard to break, and for many journalists in Hong Kong, the ethos of professional, fact-based reporting has taken deep root.
As one experienced editor at an online Chinese news site told me: “We are not a political advocacy group. If a piece of news is critical of the authorities, if it has the possibility of infringing the law, if we did it in a journalistic way, if we checked the facts, we will still run it.” In any case, the editor says, it’s a fool’s game to self-censor. “It’s ridiculous if you try to second guess where the red line is. If we did that, literally we could do nothing. They can interpret the law in any way they like, in any way that suits their purpose.”
The English-language Hong Kong Free Press has run a series of interviews with exiled Hong Kongers wanted by the police for suspected violations of the National Security Law, in what could be seen by authorities as provocation. “Keep calm and carry on,” is how founder and editor Tom Gundy put it to me, citing the news operation’s code of ethics. Its columnists are robustly critical of the new law.
China’s communist leadership needs to decide if Hong Kong’s prosperity, its thriving and robust financial markets, have any value to China. They should. While Hong Kong’s economic importance to China has diminished as the Chinese economy has risen, it’s still the conduit for the majority of China’s direct foreign investment, and a preferred place for Chinese companies to list their shares. That will come to an end if investors can’t rely on accurate reporting because journalists are frightened. China plainly will not let Hong Kong have democracy. But it actually needs to allow freedom of the press to continue, or pay a heavy price.
Steven Butler is Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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