On June 24, 2021, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers lined up in front of newspaper stands and stores to buy the last print edition of Apple Daily, the controversial pro-democracy tabloid that had been founded 26 years earlier, when the city was still under British rule. The paper published 1 million copies instead of the usual 80,000, and they quickly sold out. One in seven Hong Kongers thus managed to purchase an issue.
It was a show of collective political defiance, one of the last remaining ways in which the people could voice dissent. Almost exactly one year earlier, on 30 June 2020, the unelected, Communist Party-controlled legislature of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had passed by a unanimous vote a new National Security Law for Hong Kong, which suppressed criticism of the government, as well as political organizing. The result was the end of the freedoms that Hong Kong had long enjoyed.
At 7 a.m. on June 17, the recently instituted National Security branch of the Hong Kong police raided the headquarters of Apple Daily’s parent company Next Digital, detaining 5 executives on charges of violating the National Security Law. On June 23, the paper was forced to announce its shutdown after the Hong Kong government froze its assets.
By that time, Apple Daily had become a symbol of Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy, as had its founder Jimmy Lai, who was sitting in prison for participating in protests.
But throughout the almost three decades of its existence, the paper had been highly controversial. Its history reflects many of the contradictions and political struggles of our time.
How did it all start? How did Apple Daily rise to the top of Hong Kong’s and Taiwan’s media landscape, becoming the object of both scorn and admiration from different sides of the political spectrum, only to fall and vanish within a few weeks? Let’s take a closer look at the rise and fall of Apple Daily.
Table of Contents
- Jimmy Lai’s Rags-to-Riches Story
- Democracy Activist and Media Tycoon
- Apple Daily – A Sensationalist, Pro-Democracy Tabloid
- Hong Kong and Beyond
- Political Activism and Economic Decline
- The 2019 Democracy Protests and Lai’s Support for Donald Trump
- Arrest and Demise
Jimmy Lai’s Rags-to-Riches Story
Jimmy Lai Chee-ying (Chinese: 黎智英) was born in 1948 in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, at a time of great turmoil due to the raging civil war between the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Lai grew up in poverty during the first, disastrous years of the CCP regime. At the age of twelve he escaped mainland China and was smuggled into the British colony of Hong Kong.
He worked as a child labourer in garment sweatshops before earning money by stock market speculation. He invested in a rag trade business, copying European designs and manufacturing techniques.
In the early 1980s he founded the casual wear retailer Giordano, a name chosen to give the company an international appeal. Initially it sold clothes manufactured for the US market as a wholesale trade.
In 1983 it started to sell products under its brand name in its own stores. By the mid-2000s it had become one of the most recognizable regional clothing brands, with retail outlets in more than 20 countries across Asia and the Middle East (Fenby 2000, pp. 132-133; Ng 2013, p. 109; Roll 2005, p. 182).
Democracy Activist and Media Tycoon
If he had decided to stay out of politics, Jimmy Lai could have enjoyed his wealth and status as a Hong Kong magnate, like many other tycoons have. But in 1989, when student protests erupted across China, Lai became a vocal supporter of the pro-democracy movement. After the brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators by the CCP regime on June 4, 1989, Lai even sold Giordano T-shirts adorned with photos of the student leaders.
Enraged about the crackdown, he decided to found Next, a weekly magazine that was pro-democracy, pro-free market and, unlike most Hong Kong media at the time, did not shy away from attacking the CCP.
In mid-1994, Jimmy Lai wrote a scathing by-lined column in Next magazine denouncing Chinese premier Li Peng, who had ordered troops to crack down on protesters in 1989. Lai famously called him “a turtle’s egg with a zero IQ” who is a shame to the Chinese people. Li Peng was furious, and the CCP soon exacted revenge.
Jimmy Lai’s house was bombed. Giordano’s outlet in Beijing was shut down due to alleged licensing issues. Other outlets in mainland China followed. Under pressure, Lai stepped down from Giordano’s Board in August 1994 (Lai 2007, chapter 4; Dixon 1998, p. 48).
Apple Daily – A Sensationalist, Pro-Democracy Tabloid
Undeterred from all the threats and pressure, Jimmy Lai doubled down. Inspired by the success of Next magazine, in 1995 he poured HK$700 million into the launch of a tabloid newspaper: Apple Daily. He promoted it with a HK$100 million advertising campaign, and sold it at a 60% discount for the first month. Lai lured 10 managers and 235 reporters from other publications by offering them higher salaries (Lee 1997, pp. 130-131).
Jimmy Lai’s foray into the media business disrupted the market equilibrium that had existed before. In particular, he undermined the dominance of the well-established Oriental Daily (ibid.).
Apple Daily was a very controversial and unique type of newspaper. As Lee explained:
“[Apple Daily] pamper[ed] the audience with vivid, vulgar and sensational accounts of crime stories, mixed with a large dosage of entertainment gossip, and daily tidbits of soft pornography … The paper displays nude pictures of female bodies on a daily basis and even advises its readers when and how to obtain sex service, all written in lively and highly personable Cantonese vernacular. In the name of ‘muckracking’, moreover, the paper relentlessly exposes personal secrets and dark underside of entertainment celebrities to satisfy the reader’s peeping curiosity” (ibid.).
Jimmy Lai was positioning Apple Daily as a sensationalist tabloid, featuring crime, gossip, celebrity scandals, and soft pornography. Yet at the same time, he managed to appeal to the middle class and to educated, liberal-minded groups thanks to the paper’s pro-democracy, anti-CCP stance and political activism. This very unusual combination proved very successful. Apple Daily soon amassed a circulation of 300,000 copies in a city of about 6 million people. It also shook up the media market, forcing its competitors to adapt, innovate, and to emulate it (ibid., p. 131; Lai 2007, chapter 4).
Lai saw no contradiction between his pro-democracy beliefs and the vulgarity, sensationalism and sexual content of his publications. In an interview, he stated:
“I don’t see newspapers any differently from the T-shirts I was selling at Giordano … I just wanted to go against City Hall. We advocate freedom and democracy, and we also have the sex column. I don’t see any contradiction there” (Fenby 2000, p. 133).
From this respect, Lai achieved something remarkable. He found a style and a mission that spoke to both highly educated and working class audiences, giving his pro-democracy message a broad appeal, and avoiding being perceived as “elitist”.
Meanwhile, the CCP’s reprisals continued. By early 1996, 25 of Giordano’s 93 stores in mainland China had been closed by the government. Even after Lai had sold his remaining stake in the company, the Shanghai Bureau for Industry and Commerce launched an investigation into it, reportedly for tax avoidance.
Lai’s media empire, too, suffered from Beijing’s wrath. Next and Apple Daily were censored and their reporters were banned from mainland China. In 2011, the Chinese government banned his autobiography “I am Jimmy Lai” and shut down the book’s publisher, Zhuhai Publishing House.
In addition, companies owned by the PRC government and those under its influence refused to advertise on Lai’s media outlets, depriving them of important sources of revenue.
Lai’s political activism also frustrated his attempts to list Next Media on the Hong Kong stock exchange. In 1995, Smith New Court Far East, after being acquired by Merrill Lynch, dropped its underwriting of Next’s possible stock exchange listing. Sun Hung Kai International pulled out of an underwriting agreement in 1997. Next’s chairman, Yeung Wai Hong, was reportedly rebuffed by a Hong Kong bank official with the words: “We don’t do business with you, for political reasons”.
In 1999, Next Media group succeeded in getting listed on Hong Kong’s stock exchange with the help of investment banker Tony Fung. Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa subsequently blocked Fung’s reappointment to the governing council of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Dixon 1998, pp. 48-49; Lai 2007, chapter 4; Ng 2013, p. 109).
Hong Kong and Beyond
In 2003, the Hong Kong government proposed a national security bill which would have criminalized, among other things, acts of treason, subversion, secession and sedition. The draft bill caused massive popular backlash.
Apple Daily openly sided with the opponents of the bill. On June 14, 2003, the paper published a call to action, urging readers to participate in a July 1 protest organized by various opposition groups, with an editorial titled: “Walk onto the Street and Oppose the Evil Law with Action”. On July 1, the front-page headline read “Go to the Street and See You There” (Lee et al. 2010, chapter 3).
Over half a million people took to the streets that day, and the Hong Kong government decided to withdraw the proposed bill.
The same year, Jimmy Lai launched Apple Daily in Taiwan, a decision influenced by the election as Taiwanese president of Democratic Progressive Party candidate Chen Shui-bian. ”The day after that election, I told my wife, ‘Taiwan is the future of China,’ ” The New York Times quoted Jimmy Lai as saying. ”Democracy here [in Taiwan] is irreversible. This democratic ideal will be a very dangerous force in influencing China.”
Just like in Hong Kong, Apple Daily revolutionized Taiwan’s media. 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 introduced 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”.
In 2009, Forbes reported:
“Next Media is the force behind the unabashedly sensationalist Chinese-language tabloid Apple Daily, which has separate editions in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Its front page often boasts escapades related to sex scandals, triad (gang) activities or corrupt politicos. (In past years, it even reviewed prostitutes as if they were restaurants.)
“Next sells 310,000 Apple Daily copies a day in Hong Kong and 540,000 in Taiwan, putting them at No. 2 in circulation in both markets … It also publishes several weekly magazines with a mix of news and entertainment coverage.”
As it transitioned from print to digital, Next Media pioneered another popular genre: computer-generated reenactments of news events, especially graphic depictions of crimes and sexual assaults. Once again, Apple Daily was mocked and scorned. Yet the cartoons proved wildly successful, attracting global attention. For example, a cartoon showing Tiger Woods being chased by his wife with a golf club after she had learnt about his extramarital affairs was a worldwide hit.
Political Activism and Economic Decline
In 2014 Jimmy Lai and his media empire vocally supported the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement. During that period, Apple Daily was targeted by hacking attacks and by “soy sauce” attacks.
Jimmy Lai participated in the occupation of the area surrounding Hong Kong’s legislature. When the police were deployed to clear the site on December 11, after almost two months of demonstrations, Lai was arrested alongside nearly 250 activists.
As Hong Kong’s political situation was deteriorating, so were the finances of Lai’s media conglomerate. Just like many other print publications, Apple Daily struggled in the internet age.
By 2020, Lai’s media outlets had become unprofitable. That year, the company posted a loss of HK$415.2 (US$53.6 million) for the fifth year in a row. Long gone were the days when nearly half a million people bought copies of the newspaper. Now, they could just read it for free online, and revenue from online advertising was declining across the board. These developments affected all media, but Lai’s company was particularly hard hit because under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the CCP cracked down much more vigorously on free speech and dissent. Finding businesses willing to advertise on Lai’s outlets became ever more difficult.
In order to make up for the loss in ad revenue, in 2019 Next Digital rolled out a paid subscription model. First, it introduced a soft paywall that required users only to register. Then, it announced that it would charge readers for accessing Apple Daily websites in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In Taiwan, the experiment ended in failure. Readers were upset about the sudden introduction of fees. And many apparently didn’t think that Apple Daily’s journalism was worth the money. In August 2020 the company announced that Apple Daily Taiwan 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.” According to the paper’s last financial report, it had a daily average circulation of only about 83,000 copies.
In Hong Kong, there was no time to see if the subscription model would work, because shortly after its implementation the city was rocked by an unprecedented wave of popular protests.
The 2019 Democracy Protests and Lai’s Support for Donald Trump
In March 2019, the government of Hong Kong proposed an extradition bill to mainland China. Many people feared that the bill would be a tool for Beijing to persecute and silence critics inside Hong Kong, and have dissidents handed over to mainland authorities, where Hong Kongers wouldn’t enjoy the protection of the legal system established under British rule.
On June 16, up to 2 million people – out of a population of about 7 million – marched peacefully in the streets to protest against the bill. However, over the following days the police’s use of batons, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and water cannons led to an escalation. The police carried out arbitrary arrests, beat protesters and committed acts of torture during detention, according to Amnesty International.
It was at this juncture that Jimmy Lai, turning to the US government for help, became a supporter of Donald Trump. In July 2019, Lai met former US Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, DC, to discuss the extradition bill and its aftermath.
Lai reportedly “thanked Secretary Pompeo for the administration’s concern about human rights, and encouraged continued international attention to Hong Kong and the promises the Chinese government has made.”
As the 2020 US presidential election was approaching, Jimmy Lai endorsed Donald Trump. An article published in The Guardian on November 1 of that year noted that Lai’s pro-Trump sentiment was “echoed by many in Hong Kong’s increasingly battered pro-democracy movement, across Taiwan and among many exiled Chinese dissidents living in America,” such as dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who endorsed Trump at the Republican national convention. I will come back to the phenomenon of Chinese dissidents’ support for Trump in a future article.
In a CNN interview, Lai stated: “Only Trump can save Hong Kong.” He made such claim despite the fact that, as we have seen earlier, the National Security Law was introduced in June 2020, under the watch of the Trump administration, which had no means of stopping it.
On May 30, 2020, Apple Daily’s front page featured a “cartoon mock-up of Donald Trump as the American blockbuster hero Rambo as the newspaper trumpeted the US president’s measures against China in retaliation for its draconian new security laws in Hong Kong.”
Arrest and Demise
Jimmy Lai was arrested on August 10, 2020, alongside other prominent activists.
The now 75-year-old Lai served a 20-month jail term for his participation in various protests and unauthorized assemblies. On December 10, 2022, he received a new jail sentence of five years and nine months for fraud. He faces up to life in prison at his upcoming trial on national security charges.
Six executives of Next Digital, including its chief executive, Cheung Kim-hung, Apple Daily’s associate publisher Chan Pui-man, and its last editor-in-chief, Ryan Law Wai-kwong, were also arrested.
Furthermore, as we saw earlier, the Hong Kong government froze Next Digital’s assets, which forced it to shut down. On June 23, the company announced that Apple Daily would publish its final copy.
Decades of content were deleted from Apple Daily Hong Kong’s website and replaced by a farewell message:
“Thank you for supporting Apple Daily and Next Magazine. We are sad to inform you that Apple Daily and Next Magazine’s web and app content will no longer be accessible at 23:59, 23 June 2021, HKT … All current web and iOS subscriptions will not be renewed. We are ceasing all new subscriptions today … We would like to thank all of our readers, subscribers, advertisers, and Hongkonger for your loyal support.”
On June 27 Lo Fung, Apple Daily’s former editorial writer, was arrested by police at Hong Kong airport while he was about to board a flight to the United Kingdom. He was accused of “conspiring to collude with foreign countries or external forces to endanger national security.”
Apple Daily Taiwan had already discontinued its print edition on 17 May 2021 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.
In 2022, what remained of the former Taiwanese media powerhouse was acquired by Singaporean entrepreneur Joseph Phua. In August of the same year he announced that Apple Daily would be rebranded as Next Apple News, with the original website being shut down and replaced by a new one.
But the vibrant community of readers that used to interact with Apple Daily’s content seems to have gone elsewhere. On Facebook, for instance, the outlet’s new iteration has hardly any community engagement.
Apple Daily was a part of millions of people’s lives for 26 years. It was mocked, scorned, hated and loved, it raised eyebrows and entertained, it fought for democracy and supported a far-right movement that undermined democracy. Apple Daily was a protagonist and a victim of history, always as controversial as it was influential. Some people surely miss it, and even those who won’t admit it, or who criticized its political choices, may feel nostalgia for the bygone era, for the old Hong Kong, which ended as Apple Daily bid farewell to its readers.
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- Fenby, J. (2000). Dealing With the Dragon. A Year in the New Hong Kong
- Lai, C. (2007) Media in Hong Kong
- Lee, C. Media Structure and Regime Change in Hong Kong, in: Chan, M. K. (Ed.) (1997). The Challenge of Hong Kong’s Reintegration with China
- Lee, F. and Chan, J. (2010) Media, Social Mobilisation and Mass Protests in Post-colonial Hong Kong
- Ng, J. (2013). Blocked on Weibo
- Roll, M. (2005). Asian Brand Strategy. How Asia Builds Strong Brands