On 17 May 2021 the popular news outlet Apple Daily Taiwan shut down its print edition after 18 years.
The company’s management cited the pandemic as well as the global decline of print media due to the internet as the main reasons why the paper was no longer commercially viable.
According to the paper’s last financial report it had a daily average circulation of about 83,000 copies, only a fraction of the volume of copies sold at its peak years earlier.
Apple Daily Taiwan was founded in February 2003, and by 2006 it had reached a circulation of 526,000 copies, surpassing its long-established competitors Liberty Times, United Daily News and China Times.
Apple Daily revolutionized Taiwan’s media landscape, introducing a new controversial, and often looked-down-upon, tabloid style. In 2013, Quartz called Taiwan’s Apple Daily “not a serious read” that focused on “celebrity gossip and graphic coverage of sex and violence”.
But a unique feature of Apple Daily was its staunch pro-democracy, liberal leaning, which set it apart from similar tabloid newspapers in other countries.
Apple Daily was originally founded in 1995 in Hong Kong by entrepreneur Jimmy Lai as part of his Next Media Group conglomerate.
Jimmy Lai is a self-made millionaire and a refugee born in Guangzhou, in southern China’s Guangdong province. That was the time of the so-called “Great Exodus to Hong Kong“, when hundreds of thousands of impoverished Chinese left Guangdong for the neighbouring British colony of Hong Kong.
In an interview with Jane Hutcheon, Jimmy Lai explained how he first heard of Hong Kong:
As he waited by a street in Guangdong province, a well-dressed man jumped off the back of a cart laden with bags and suitcases. The eleven-year-old Jimmy helped the man with his bags so the man tipped Jimmy with a chocolate bar. He had never tasted anything so good. ‘What is it?’ asked Jimmy. ‘Chocolate,’ said the man. From that time the only thing in the young boy’s mind was to get to Hong Kong (Hutcheon, J. (2014). From Rice to Riches, chapter 5).
Lai eventually applied for a permit to travel to Macau, and from there he was smuggled to Hong Kong on a fishing boat. He first worked as a child labourer at a garment factory. In 1981, he founded the clothing retailer Giordano, which by 2009 had a net worth of $660 million.Embed from Getty Images
Jimmy Lai was always a critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and a supporter of democracy. After the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, he used his clothing company to print T-shirts for pro-democracy activists.
In mid-1994 Jimmy Lai publicly attacked the CCP leadership in a high-profile column for his Next Magazine, in which he called Chinese Premier Li Peng “a turtle’s egg with a zero IQ” who is a “shame to the Chinese people”, and lambasted him for ordering the killing of civilian protesters in 1989.
The CCP immediately retaliated. A Giordano outlet in Beijing was temporarily closed, allegedly because of licensing issues. The Chinese authorities soon forced one store after another to close down until Lai resigned from Giordano’s board in August 1994.
By early 1996, 25 of its 93 franchise stores in China had been closed down. Lai sold his remaining stake in Giordano, but that did not placate Beijing’s wrath. In early March 1996, eleven Giordano franchised outlets in Shanghai were placed under investigation by the Shanghai Bureau for Industry and Commerce for alleged tax avoidance and shut down (Lai, C.P. (2007). Media in Hong Kong: Press Freedom and Political Change, 1967-2005, chapter 4; Hutcheon 2014, chapter 5; Ng, J. Q. (2013). Blocked on Weibo: What Gets Suppressed on China’s Version of Twitter (And Why), p. 109; Newman, D., Dixon, J. E., Dixon, J. E. (1998). Entering the Chinese Market: The Risks and Discounted Rewards, p. 48).
Jimmy Lai’s company is a clear example of how in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) business is subordinated to the interests of the CCP.
Jimmy Lai used his media empire to oppose the CCP, while simultaneously publishing salacious, sensationalist news that appealed to a broad audience. Within a year of its launch Apple Daily became profitable. Before the handover in 1997, Apple Daily and Next Magazine had a combined readership of around 3.5 million out of a population of 5.6 million at the time.
In February 1997 Jimmy Lai sought to list Next Media Group on Hong Kong’s stock market. But before the much anticipated Initial Public Offering (IPO), Next Media Group’s sponsor, Sun Hung Kai International, a major Hong Kong investment bank, withdrew from the deal at the last minute, fuelling speculations that the bank regarded Jimmy Lai’s political involvement as a liability.
Next Media Group was later listed in Hong Kong with the help of investment banker Tony Fung. Afterwards, Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa refused to confirm Fung’s position in the governing council of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a move widely perceived as a retaliatory measure. The Hong Kong government also pressured companies not to advertise on Apple Daily, causing revenue losses for the paper (Lai 2007, chapter 4).
In August 2020 Jimmy Lai was arrested for his involvement in the 2019 pro-democracy protests. He was charged under the city’s National Security Law on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces and endangering national security.
In April 2021 he was sentenced to 14 months in prison after being found guilty of unauthorized assembly. He faces another six charges, which can carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. On May 14, the Hong Kong government froze 70 percent of Lai’s shares in Next Digital, the parent company of his media conglomerate, as well as three bank accounts held by his private companies. On May 17 the Hong Kong stock exchange halted trading of Next Digital shares.
CCP-owned media in Hong Kong have urged the government to outright shut down Apple Daily for violating the National Security Law which the CCP imposed to silence dissent.
Jimmy Lai’s once flourishing media empire is facing a number of challenges, both political and economic. In April 2019 Apple Daily Taiwan launched a subscription-based service, placing the website behind a paywall. But the experiment ended in failure, and in August 2020 the company announced that it would scrap its paywall, stating that the decision was made both because of the pandemic and because “Taiwan has not yet grown accustomed to a paid subscription news service.”
Next Digital has tried to sell the Apple Daily Taiwan, but negotiations with a potential buyer were halted in April, reportedly because of the low sum offered.
Although the online edition of Apple Daily will continue, the demise of the print edition marks the end of an era.
In its heyday, Apple Daily was successful because it combined pro-democracy views and activism that appealed to a liberal-minded readership, with salacious, mundane, often sexually explicit content for a broader, casual audience.
But as Hong Kong has been transformed into an authoritarian regime, the space for free debate has shrunk to a minimum. In Taiwan, by contrast, the pro-democracy Democratic Progressive Party administration does not offer the paper much material for news-making, unlike the previous pro-China Guomindang government.
On the other hand, Apple Daily‘s tabloid style has been copied by other outlets. The introduction of a paywall alienated many readers. And due to social media companies, the way news is consumed has changed. Whether the paper finds its way back to prosperity or not, it is hardly ever going to be the same again once it is no longer under Jimmy Lai’s leadership.
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