17 September 2019
Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai says he has told staff to play down news on Hong Kong independence. Photo: HKEJ
Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai says he has told staff to play down news on Hong Kong independence. Photo: HKEJ

Will Apple Daily be the next victim of Beijing’s white terror?

The sudden closure of pro-democracy news site House News Saturday not only sent shock waves through Hong Kong’s pan-democrat community, it also raised a bigger question: How long can Next Media’s Apple Daily, the city’s only pro-democracy newspaper, last?

House News was started two years ago by four backers but closed on the weekend, citing political pressure and poor returns. Despite its youth, House News was a major influence among internet users. Apple Daily is a much bigger and more influential target and has been subject to both direct and indirect intervention from Beijing — so much so that major corporations in Hong Kong no longer place advertisements in the city’s second-biggest paid daily.

To head off further blocks from Beijing and to try to ensure the paper’s survival, Next Media founder Jimmy Lai has compromised and made it clear that Apple Daily will not cross the line to promote independence for Hong Kong.

That is despite Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily attacking Lai and Next Media last week for promoting the idea. The article described Apple Daily as poisoning Hong Kong’s electoral reforms, trying to propel the city down the road of independence and attempting to get rid of Beijing’s rule to suit Lai’s personal agenda.

Lai responded by saying that neither he nor his publications had ever supported the Hong Kong independence movement. He said there was no way for the city to pursue independence because it would be difficult to get rid of Beijing rule. Lai also clarified that he does not support Taiwan independence.

Lai said that from a political perspective, Hong Kong independence could be the straw that broke the camel’s back, giving Beijing an excuse to ban all pan-democratic movements in Hong Kong and cutting Apple Daily off completely from advertisers. He admitted sending out an internal memo to Apple Daily’s editorial team, telling it to play down news on Hong Kong independence.

The People’s Daily attack follows hot on the heels of reports in pro-Beijing media that Lai is the main donor to pan-democratic parties in Hong Kong and a major behind-the-scenes supporter of the Occupy Central campaign.

Apple Daily has suffered in recent years from a decline in advertising revenues due to the rising popularity of free sheets as well as the shift from newspapers to websites as the major source of news. But Apple Daily’s biggest problem is that thanks to Beijing it does not have the advertising support of the city’s leading property developers, retailers or state-owned enterprises. And yet it is still the most profitable newspaper in Hong Kong.

The Communist Party has had Apple Daily in its sights since the paper launched in 1995 but the newspaper has attracted more than 1 million Hong Kong readers due to Lai’s clear anti-Communist stance. As long as the newspaper remains profitable, has readers and attracts support from smaller businesses, there is no business reason for Lai to close down the newspaper.

But, the closure of House News points to growing pressure from the north and the spread of “white terror” in the city. While Lai steps up each day to host an online talk show criticizing Beijing’s tough policies on Hong Kong, will he be forced one day to pull the plug on the operation or sell it to some pro-Beijing investors? That very much depends on Lai’s commitment to the city.

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EJ Insight writer