Perhaps you read all of this and think the following: The Chinese Communist Party is terrible. We hear horrific stories out of China all the time. About how the CCP is carrying out a genocide against Uyghur Muslims and how it is staging videos of people pretending to be happy Uyghurs in an attempt to conceal the truth. About how it indoctrinates its people with censorship and propaganda. About how it disappears people. About how it uses cutting edge technology to spy on its own. Why should a newspaper closure rank among such atrocities?
By my lights, the most important news event of this past week was not the New York mayoral primary (my condolences to Andrew Yang). It wasn’t Bitcoin dropping below $30,000. And it certainly wasn’t the new bipartisan infrastructure deal announced by President Biden.
It was the forced closure of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong.
You may not have heard of Apple Daily. I knew of it, but only vaguely. It is — or rather, it was — Hong Kong’s version of the New York Post combined with William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. A tabloid, yes. But also: a voice for freedom.
Ever since it began publishing in 1995, Apple Daily has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party. Its commitment to democracy and freedom had everything to do with its founder, Jimmy Lai.
It’s not possible to do Lai’s whole story justice in a column — someone should make a blockbuster — but here is the cliffsnotes version: Lai fled mainland China at 12 years old as a stowaway on a fishing boat. He found a job in a Hong Kong sweatshop and eventually worked his way up in the garment trade (or, as we in the Jewish community call it, the shmata business.)
Along the way, he encountered fellow garment workers in New York who introduced him to free-market theorists like Frederick Hayek, Karl Popper and Milton Friedman, with whom he later developed a close relationship. “This is a guy who didn’t have any formal schooling past the age of maybe eight,” Mark Simon, who has been Lai’s right hand for the past two decades, told me in an interview this week. “Those books started his real political awakening.”
By the ’80s, Lai had built out his retail empire in Hong Kong; his company, called Giordano after a New York pizza spot, became a wild success.
But becoming rich wasn’t what changed the course of Lai’s life. The massacre at Tiananmen Square did.
“That’s when he went from his economic and intellectual awakening to his political awakening,” said Simon. “I don’t want to be too crude, but [Lai] said, ‘I hated the bastards. I knew evil when I saw it. And they are evil.’”
Lai, a devout Catholic, shifted his focus from t-shirts to tabloids and began to build his media empire. The first edition of Apple Daily made its purpose plain: “We are convinced that Hongkongers who are accustomed to freedom will not stay silent in the face of unreasonable restrictions and unfair treatments, for Hongkongers are born with a passion for freedom.”
Lai and the paper lived out that mission.
In 2014, the tycoon took to the streets in solidarity with the students who were leading what became known as the Umbrella Movement. In 2019, when Hong Kongers took to the streets once again, this time millions of them marching against the new extradition bill, Apple Daily printed pro-democracy posters for them to carry.
When the national security law passed last year, which effectively criminalized criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, Lai knew that it would not end well for him and for Apple Daily. He had more than the means to leave the city. But he refused.
Mark Simon remembers it this way: “Jimmy would tell people all the time, ‘Get out, get out now, it’s 1949.’ Then Jimmy would be told, ‘Why don’t you get out? Why don’t you get out?’ And he had an answer that I think would surprise some. He would say: ‘I don’t want to be an asshole.’ He would say, ‘I’ve been part of this fight since 1997.’ He said, ‘If I leave now and I leave all these young people here, what kind of guy am I now?’” Last May, Lai gave an interview to Reuters, saying: “What I have, this place gave me. I will fight on till the last day. It will be an honour if I…sacrifice.”
Today, Jimmy Lai sits in a jail cell for “unauthorized assembly.”
Over the past week, the same forces that jailed him came for his newspaper. Hundreds of police officers raided the newsroom. They seized hard drives and laptops. They arrested five of the company’s top executives and editors, who stand accused of collusion with foreign forces and endangering national security. They froze the company’s assets. The swashbuckling, anti-Communist tabloid, the symbol of Hong King’s free press, printed its last edition on Thursday.
They printed a million copies and were sold out by lunch time.