HONG KONG — Apple Daily, a popular newspaper in Hong Kong, has long needled Beijing with its rambunctious support of pro-democracy protesters, aggressive investigations of the city’s officials and lampooning of China’s Communist Party leadership. Now China has effectively silenced the paper — and along with it, one of its most defiant critics.
Apple Daily said on Wednesday that it was closing less than a week after the police froze its accounts, raided its offices and arrested top editors, as the government’s escalating campaign against dissent takes aim at the city’s once vaunted media freedoms.
The forced closure of Apple Daily struck a blow to the unique character of the city itself, and in some ways, signaled the end of an era. The paper churned out stories on celebrity gossip and lurid scandals, as well as hard-hitting political news and analysis, always with a decidedly antigovernment slant and an irreverence antithetical to what the Communist Party would allow in the mainland. Even in the face of advertising boycotts, assaults on its journalists and firebomb attacks, the paper persevered and thrived, living proof of the freedoms Hong Kong enjoyed despite its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
When antigovernment protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019, posing the greatest political challenge to Beijing in decades, Apple Daily was an unabashed supporter of the movement, even printing placards for demonstrators. But when Beijing moved to quash resistance to its rule in the city with a powerful and sweeping national security law that squeezed space for dissent, Apple Daily quickly became a key target.
First, the authorities arrested the paper’s pugnacious founder, Jimmy Lai, last year, and charged him with national security offenses that carry a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. While in detention, he was also sentenced to prison for 20 months for involvement in illegal protests.
Then last Thursday, hundreds of police officers raided the paper’s newsroom, hauling off computers, freezing its assets and arresting top editors and executives. Ryan Law, the editor in chief, and Cheung Kim-hung, chief executive of Next Digital, the paper’s parent company, were charged with conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign powers under the security law, and were denied bail.
On Wednesday, the police arrested one of the paper’s journalists, Yeung Ching-kee, who wrote columns and editorials under the pen name Li Ping. Mr. Yeung could see the writing on the wall for his employer after Mr. Lai’s arrest in August. China’s Communist Party and its allies in Hong Kong “have decided to strangle Apple Daily, to kill Hong Kong’s freedom of press and freedom of speech,” Mr. Yeung wrote.
“Even when the democratic world increases the sanctioning actions toward them, they would just intensify the suppression and prosecution against Apple Daily, in the hope that they would succumb to the pressure and surrender or stop publishing,” he wrote.
Apple Daily’s identity mirrors that of its founder, Mr. Lai, who was smuggled into Hong Kong from mainland China as a boy and rose from a factory worker to become a clothing tycoon. He began to pursue publishing after China’s bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Like Mr. Lai, his scrappy newspaper, which he founded in 1995, was fixated on supporting democracy and attacking China’s Communist Party.
“I believe in the media, by delivering information, you’re actually delivering freedom,” he told The New York Times last year.
Mr. Lai angered Beijing early on by calling Li Peng, the Chinese official who ordered the 1989 crackdown, the “son of a turtle.” After that, Beijing threatened to block his clothing company, Giordano, from continuing to operate in mainland China. Forced to choose between clothing and the media, he sold his Giordano shares in 1996 to focus on the news business.
Mr. Lai’s publications matched his doggedness, pursuing celebrity gossip and political scandal with equal verve. The newspaper would often publish racy images of starlets and break news of celebrity infidelities. In its early years it even ran columns on pornography and brothel reviews, and readers complained when those offerings were scaled back.
But along with scandalous infotainment, Apple Daily would also pursue tough investigations into local corruption, exposing how several Hong Kong officials built illegal extensions to their homes. It would regularly pursue social issues like the city’s vast wealth gap and unaffordable housing. The newspaper took an active role in local politics, calling on readers to take to the streets for demonstrations and even printing posters for them to carry.
Mr. Lai was unapologetic about the mix of tawdry and high-minded content, comparing Apple Daily to a clothing line with many colors and styles to appeal to its customers.
As China’s attitude toward Hong Kong hardened over the past year, Mr. Lai anticipated that his paper’s days were numbered. In a guest essay for The Times in May last year, he wrote that he had long feared that the Communist Party “would grow tired not only of Hong Kong’s free press but also of its free people.”
This past week, that fate seemed unavoidable for Apple Daily. As the paper marked its final days, readers flocked to newsstands to snap up copies. Politicians who had been both skewered and celebrated in its pages contemplated a city without one of its biggest, most audacious media voices.
Reporters on Apple Daily’s team of about 700 editorial and production staff gathered, sometimes tearfully, and weighed whether to leave early and perhaps reduce the risk of also being arrested, or stay on until the bitter end.
On the company shuttle that took them from a subway station to the newsroom, some joked that it felt like they were headed to a funeral. One reporter began drafting a letter to her parents detailing what they should do if she were to be arrested. Several worked on what they referred to as the “obituary issue,” the final print to be put out on Thursday.
In the newsroom on Monday, Marco Cheung, a senior video reporter, discussed resigning from the paper together with his team members. Video editors had already said that they would not return to work the next day and without them, their work as producers would be severely hampered. The police had confiscated their hard drives during the raid, and they were worried about being arrested. The team’s editors had hoped to gather some highlights of the work the section had produced, but had no time to complete it.
As Mr. Cheung and two dozen other colleagues gathered in the office to watch a 9:30 p.m. broadcast — the show’s final episode — recapping the day’s news, some cried; others hugged. They took group photos and pondered their future prospects. A large red banner emblazoned with the words: “Colleagues, you’ve worked hard!” hung over the newsroom.
As Mr. Cheung packed his desk, he noticed a front-page story from the paper’s June 4, 1999, edition, marking the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, pasted on the glass divider on his desk. Gingerly, he peeled it off and gave it to a colleague.
“Is society changing too quickly or is it us that cannot keep up?” Mr. Cheung later said in an interview. “Maybe we are used to a society with free speech and we have not adjusted yet. We have not yet learned how we ought to survive, if we want to stay in Hong Kong as journalists.”