The twilight of democracy in Hong Kong

With Apply Daily closed, Hong Kong loses more than just freedom of press.

With the forced closure of Apple Daily, Xi Jinping is sending a strong and clear message to foreign governments and businesses that Hong Kong is now under totalitarian rule.  

By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade

The impact of Apple Daily’s closure goes far beyond journalism in Hong Kong.  This latest repressive action undertaken by General Secretary Xi raises the stakes for other sectors as well because now, business and politics are intertwined and the operating environment is a political minefield.  Businesses may not care too much about democracy and other universal values in their pursuit of profits but they do care about having legal protection, stability and a conducive climate, which they are not getting under the Maoist regime of Xi.  Under the sweeping aegis of the draconian Hong Kong National Security Law, every entity runs the constant risk of crossing so-called red lines, which are vague and all-encompassing.

The authorities’ heavy-handed approach to freeze about US$2.3 million in bank accounts belonging to Apple Daily and affiliated companies destroys the city’s reputation as a financial hub, scares away potential investors and hasten the relocation of funds and operations to other regional hubs such as Singapore.  Nevertheless, the control of Hong Kong will not end at the coercion of the media industry.  

Rather, it is speculated that Xi will move on next to intimidate the academia and education industry into subservience and self-censorship, and to rewrite the school syllabus to whitewash history and brainwash students into giving absolute loyalty to the Communist Party of China (CCP).  In addition, just like the ones found in mainland China, Xi will erect a great firewall to control access to the Internet, construct a pervasive surveillance apparatus to monitor the people’s daily lives, and eventually establish a reporting system to encourage colleagues, friends and families to spy on each other, thereby firmly putting Hong Kong under Maoist rule.

With the accounts frozen, Apple Daily could not pay the salary of its 700 staff and other numerous suppliers and vendors, with the repercussion being felt by their family members as well.  Therefore, this maneuver, without any regards for the livelihood of ordinary Hong Kong citizens, may have in all negatively impacted thousands of people.  Moreover, the repressive move, arbitrarily executed without the backing of any court ruling or giving any evidence, should send a chill down the spine of local and foreign businesses alike, as what happened to Apple Daily now can happen to any other companies in the future.  

The forbidden fruit

On June 17, 500 Hong Kong police officers arrested five executives, including the chief editor, at the Apple Daily office.  On June 23, the police again arrested a senior columnist.  They were all charged under the Security Law with “conspiracy to commit collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security” and were denied bail.  National security offenses carry a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

Using 500 police officers is an overkill surely, the five targets are white-collar workers, not terrorists, but be that as it may, Xi’s aim is to send an unmistakable signal to the whole world that democracy is dead and a new era of totalitarian control is here to stay.  Apple Daily, a newspaper critical of the Chinese leadership, engaged in hard-hitting journalism that supported pro-democracy movement and investigated corrupt officials, was seen as the last bastion of media resistance to the CCP.  It was a thorn at Beijing’s side.

The CCP has always viewed the media as one of the important tools use to hold on to power and to serve the interests of the party.  Mediums such as newspapers, literature, television, movie, music, theater and pop culture are used for propaganda to disseminate Maoist ideology, pro-CCP views and policies, and shape public opinion.  There is no place for dissenting views and critical reporting.

Crackdown on freedom and transparency 

The forced closure of Apple Daily reflects a new level of self-confidence and assertiveness that Xi is displaying.  With his reneging on the Sino-British Joint Declaration Treaty that legally guarantees autonomy till 2047 and sustained efforts to stamp out freedom and democracy, he has now given up at any pretense at diplomacy and is acting more like a gangster than an elder statesman in the governance of Hong Kong.  

It is telling that China’s budget for domestic security has exceeded external defense spending since 2010 and the gap has grown since Xi became general secretary in 2012.  The domestic security expenditure is spent on state security, police, domestic surveillance, armed civil militia and other measures to quell public disturbances.

Since the passing of the Security Law in June 2020, Hong Kong has seen mass arrests and imprisonment of pro-democracy politicians, activists, protestors and journalists, and at the same time, there has been a steady clampdown on civil liberties.  Apple Daily’s owner Jimmy Lai is already in jail for joining pro-democracy protests. 

The free press is the last bastion of democracy in Hong Kong and it has now fallen.  The city owed its status as the top global financial hub in large part to a free press and with the media now shackled by fear and repression, this is placing the economy at risk.  A free press has long been regarded as an important force in governance as it holds the powerful politicians accountable to prevent corruption and abuse of power, as well as being vital to the functioning of a free, vibrant and prosperous economy.  

The fact of the matter is that a wealthy economy requires a free press to sustain and grow it by ensuring a clean and efficient government working for the greater good of the people and the economy, and providing a platform for the diffusion and exchange of different opinions, views and ideas which will in turn spur innovation, R&D, experimentation and entrepreneurship.  

Knowing the true nature of a totalitarian regime

Xi does not care and is not worried about condemnation, sanctions, financial and reputational damage, and other repercussions from the international community.  He is intent on tightening control until Hong Kong is just like any other city in mainland China.  In his worldview, Maoism is the best tool to consolidate his personal power and elevate China to a position of strength and leadership on the world stage.  But Xi’s obsession with total control also betrays a deep-rooted insecurity as he knows that he has no legitimacy to represent all 7.5 million Hong Kongers, let alone 1.4 billion Chinese citizens.  Quiet defiance is present at unexpected places.  

When the authority banned the annual June 4 candlelight vigil at Victoria Park which commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, warning that attendance can lead to five years’ imprisonment, tens of thousands of ordinary citizens found other creative but legal ways to push back against the CCP, including holding candles and shining flashlights from their cellphones at other public places, going to churches to attend memorial masses, and gathering at online events.  And when Apple Daily printed its final copy on June 24, all one million copies were sold out within hours.  

If presented with free will and a choice, many Hong Kong citizens as well as mainland Chinese will choose freedom over Xi’s totalitarian rule, given that throughout the years, millions of Chinese citizens have studied at and immigrated to western democratic countries.  Moreover, according to the UK in January 2021, around 300,000 Hong Kong residents holding BNO passports and their dependents are keen to consider a new scheme that allows them to live, study and work in Britain for five years and eventually apply for citizenship.  

Foreign companies need to be clear-eyed when dealing with the CCP and must not hold on to the illusion that economic engagement will induce political change and democratic progress and hope that as China becomes more prosperous, it will open up more and embrace a free economy.  The reality is that Hong Kong is now ruled by a Maoist regime, the CCP does not respect the right to private property, and therefore, with the erosion of the rule of law, foreign fund, investment and companies will, sooner or later, make plans to leave Hong Kong.

Image credit: Jimmy Siu / Shutterstock.com

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Lee Kok Leong

Lee Kok Leong

Kok Leong, executive editor, has overall editorial responsibility for the direction and focus of Maritime Fairtrade. He has two decades of working experiences, including holding senior regional roles in business-to-business (B2B) print and online publications. He enjoys his work as a journalist, and regards it as a calling.

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