HONG KONG — After the National Security Police raid on its headquarters on June 17, Hong Kong's biggest pro-democracy paper, Apple Daily, had announced its closure and published its final edition on Thursday, ending its 26 years of publication. But what exactly does the death of Apple Daily mean?

First, some history: Ever since its creation in 1995, it is the first full color paper in Hong Kong, and the only high-profile paper that published political dissent. Achieving commercial success with erotic entertainment content in its early days, Apple Daily has become the third most credible newspaper in Hong Kong by gaining public recognition with its firm stance against the total regime. Its final chapter has brought about a sharp narrowing of Hong Kong's mainstream discourse toward a moderate middle ground, where political dissent has been shut out of the public discussion.

Apple Daily was a successful business being a market driven paper, but for the founder Jimmy Lai it was never only about business. Lai escaped from the mainland when he was 12, built himself up from nothing in Hong Kong and became firmly anti-communist. In recent years, he has been actively involved in Hong Kong's democratic movements. Upon founding Apple Daily in 1995, two years before the UK's handover of Hong Kong, Lai wanted to create a newspaper that defies the power, supports democracy, and of course, belongs to Hong Kong.

Apple Daily was founded with a clear pro-democracy stance and became an important public opinion forum for Hong Kong residents.

At the end of British colonial rule, many Hong Kong citizens were nervous about the handover in 1997, and there were growing calls for democratization. The last British governor, Christopher Patten, had reformed the electoral system and introduced general elections, with the growing development of civil society. Apple Daily was founded with a clear pro-democracy stance and became an important public opinion forum for Hong Kong residents.

This made Apple Daily an anomaly. Before the handover, Beijing had been eagerly reaching out to Hong Kong media, hoping to dilute critical attitudes towards the China Communist Party and the handover. Such projects are still ongoing, even while hiccups such as the pro-democracy movements disturb society: the central government has continued to codify and regulate the media, and it has worked effectively to date.

Parallel to the political codification, Hong Kong media has been under economic pressure to move closer to Beijing in terms of attitude and content. As Hong Kong's economy has become more intertwined with China before and after the transfer of sovereignty, the influence of mainland companies operating in Hong Kong has increased. As a result, the business community as a whole had to rely on the Chinese market. To avoid irritating the Chinese government, the business community avoided "China-unfriendly" media when placing advertisements. This in effect makes the media, which relies on advertising revenue, more politically cautious and conservative.

People line up to buy the final edition of Apple Daily newspaper at newsstand in the Central district of Hong Kong — Photo: Ivan Abreu/SOPA Images/ZUMA

But Apple Daily has remained pro-democracy and anti-CCP, not only because of Lai's stands, but also thanks to its early commercial success and demands from a loyal readership that keeps the paper going. The political critical nature of Apple Daily has had important implications for the press, the public's right to know, and for the democratic movement in Hong Kong, maintaining a critical voice in Hong Kong society.

In the 2010s, social conflicts under the "One Country, Two Systems" began to erupt. Hong Kong has experienced major political events such as the Anti-National Education Movement (2012), Umbrella Movement (2014) and the Anti-Extradition Law Movement (2019). In addition, the culture clash between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders has intensified, even while Hong Kong society itself has entered an era of political polarization, where various ideologies and political claims are competing with each other.

We are at a crossroads of history, as the regime blatantly rewrites laws and norms.

The upheaval naturally affects media coverage, making it difficult for newspapers to maintain an objective and neutral posture. In times of political turmoil, when social consensus is fractured and the public itself is on the verge of collapse, it is not uncommon for the media to have difficulty in maintaining credibility in the minds of the general readership.

Entering the 2020s, Hong Kong society is standing at a crossroads of history, as the regime blatantly rewrites the laws and norms that the society relies on: Legislative Council, right to civic participation, the right to protest, civil associations, education, media… layers of institutions are being loosely reconstructed, and the foundations of Hong Kong's civil society, the space for freedom, are rapidly collapsing. The public's choice to endorse Apple Daily — not meaning ignoring its problems — is both a political statement and a defense of freedom of the press and speech.

The end of Apple Daily means the loss of a critical edge in Hong Kong's public discussion space. The remaining mainstream press is generally pro-establishment or moderate, while the suppression of voices like the Apple Daily is bound to induce self-censorship. Will other traditional media carry on political dissent in Hong Kong? The answer: not likely.

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