The enemies of liberty have cause for celebration as do the people who despise Hong Kong’s way of life that was so raucously celebrated by Apple Daily during its 26 years of publication.

The Quislings who weaponised the law to ensure the demise of the newspaper and its publishing company can now pat themselves on the back for delivering a final blow to Apple Daily by freezing its assets and arresting not just its executives but also a prominent commentator, signifying that expressing an opinion contrary to the Party line is now a criminal offence.

apple daily's headquarter
Photo: Kenny Huang & Michael Ho/Studio Incendo.

They are no doubt smirking and preening themselves as they savour the thought of how they have pleased their bosses with this gift of suppression just days ahead of the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary.

Meanwhile out on the streets of Hong Kong hundreds of thousands of citizens scouring newsstands  hoping to get their hands on the last copy of the newspaper that meant so much to them. One million copies were printed but even this did not meet demand.

Apple was, as it founders’ intended, always on the side of Hong Kong. And, at least in this respect, the paper’s enemies have it right, it was much more than just being a newspaper because it became deeply embedded participant in the lives of the people.

And yes, it was partisan, unwaveringly backing the democracy movement. And yes, it was prejudiced. And yes, it was sometimes vulgar. And yes, it was unafraid when maybe it should have been much more afraid.

In all these respects Apple Daily reflected a way of life that Hongkongers cherish not least because  of its unabashed celebration of Hong Kong’s cultural distinctiveness.

Apple Daily last edition June 23, 2021 Mong Kok
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The reason why Apple and its boss, the jailed Jimmy Lai, become the subject of the Communist Party’s obsessive hatred was because Lai and his newspaper appeared to be fearless but more especially because the paper was so successful.

Every time an attempt was made to knock it down, the people rallied to support it. They bought the paper at a time when most newspaper sales are in sharp decline, they subscribed online when they could have secured its contents without payment. And they even bought advertising space when a campaign initiated by former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying scared away commercial advertisers. Moreover they went so far as to buy the company’s shares in the full knowledge that as the white terror deepened, these shares might become worthless.

So, as long as Apple lived it provided a rallying point for resistance and this was never going to be tolerated.

The politics of Hong Kong’s only democracy supporting media company can hardly be overlooked but, as a journalist, It is equally hard to overlook Apple’s immense contribution to local journalism.

Apple Daily front page
A reprint of the front page of Apple Daily’s first edition.

When it was launched it literally transformed the appearance of Chinese language papers which had never gone in for big bold page layouts, let alone large picture display. Pre-Apple these papers were filled with tiny columns, tiny pictures and a layout that resembled a maze more than anything else. At a stroke Apple changed all this. It’s bitter rival, the Oriental Daily News, quickly moved into Apple-mode as far as design was concerned, naturally, without a scintilla of acknowledgement.

Next Media, the original name of Apple’s publisher, was also the first among local media organisations to get its head around the profound transformation brought about by the digital revolution. It invested very heavily in its digital offering and, again, created a benchmark for other media groups to follow.

Most intriguing however was the concept of the paper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, who had the firm conviction that a racy sensationalist-style newspaper could be married to a paper with serious political content, carrying the kind of articles that were once the bread and butter of the infinitely more serious Ming Pao Daily

It had long been held that a marriage of this kind simply would not work but Apple proved this assumption to be wrong.

Jimmy Lai Mike Pence
Next Digital owner Jimmy Lai meets US Vice President Mike Pence in the White House, July 8, 2019. Photo: RFA.

Apple, in scandal sheet mode, was known to go too far and even its staunchest defenders would sometimes blanch at its coverage.

It is also the case that Apple’s general political outlook was very much associated with that of the neo-conservative right wing in America. In addition it was a firm supporter of US President Trump, which made many Hong Kong democrats very uncomfortable.

However, writers who did not share this world view were welcomed to contribute, I know this as a fact because I was one of them and wrote commentaries from a rather different angle, none of which were edited to accommodate another line or denied publication because they came from a different perspective.

Maybe these aspects of the paper are less important than the emotion generated by Apple Daily among not just its supporters but also its opponents. Apple never sought, nor enjoyed the flaccid ground of neutrality. 

It existed in the fine tradition of L’Aurore in France that published Emile Zola’s famous J’Accuse commentary on its front page denouncing the anti-Semitism that led to the unjust jailing of Alfred Dreyfus. It had the mark of the Boston Globe at its finest when it exposed sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and it always strongly reminded me of Britain’s Daily Mirror in its heyday when campaigning was part of its DNA.

The enemies of liberty can rejoice over how easy it was to kill Apple Daily but they are profoundly mistaken if they believe they have extinguished the spirit which it represented.

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Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship