On June 23rd, Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s most subscribed to digital paper, closed its doors after a campaign of government harassment including armed raids, arrests of leadership, and freezing of assets. The move led to widespread condemnation, including an official statement from US President Joe Biden, an official statement from UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and denunciations from over 100 American newspapers, websites, and TV channels across the political spectrum. The CCP’s propaganda machine went to work in Hong Kong, portraying Apple Daily as “rotten fruit” and a threat to national security, sputtered internationally where its outlets offered scattershot rebuttals of Western narratives, and stayed quiet domestically, barely addressing the issue at all.
Wen Wei Po, a newspaper owned by CGLO, Beijing’s representative in Hong Kong, and with the third highest circulation in Hong Kong, lauded the shut down of the region’s “leading obscene media outlet.” Wen Wei Po quoted a Legislative Council member who accused Apple Daily of “Smearing the government and creating fake news, tearing apart Hong Kong society” while another legislator accused Apple Daily of using “‘press freedom’ as a shield and umbrella to discredit the SAR government [of Hong Kong] and even the central government.” “Press freedom as a shield” would be a common refrain across CCP media. Ta Kung Pao, Hong Kong’s #4 newspaper and another CGLO possession, openly celebrated the closure, declaring on Weibo, “After 26 years of disaster in Hong Kong, the “poisonous fruit” comes to an end. The time is here! Happy Day! Apple Daily closed down today!” along with an infographic of alleged scandals involving Apple Daily. Another Tu Kung Pao post showed anti-Apple Daily protestors popping champagne at the closure of an “incitement and mobilization machine” that “spread anti-China hatred.”
The CCP’s English-language outlets promoted much the same message. Tabloid Global Times lauded the “end of an era of foreign interference” and accused Apple Daily of staffing “anti-government radicals” who “tried to cause a color revolution.” A separate Global Times piece asserted “press freedom stays in Hong Kong” and claimed that “No Western country would allow the existence of such a hub that manipulates public opinion to counter constitutional system of the country.” International broadcaster CGTN declared “no one is above the law” while China Daily echoed the sentiment, writing “‘Press freedom’ is not a shield for lawbreakers.”
Domestically, the CCP largely adopted a “nothing to see here” approach, with only 19 pieces out of 14,700 published in the past seven days referencing Apple Daily. Of the 19, 15 were national newspapers such as China Daily, Xinhua, and CNA. Only four publications appeared in local outlets–Hebei News, Inner Mongolia Radio and TV, Beijing Daily Client, and Yangchen Evening News. Each portrayed the arrest of Apple Daily leadership as a victory for Hong Kong security against foreign interference.
The shutdown of the largest dissident newspaper in Hong Kong represents the culmination of the worst fears arising from Hong Kong’s National Security Law. Whereas in Mainland China, the government accounts for 83% of digital publications (and almost all of regional publications), CCP and LGCO outlets account for under 10% of publications targeting Hong Kong. With Alibaba, the owner of Hong Kong’s leading newspaper, also brought under CCP heel, and Next Digital, Apple Daily’s owner, together making up the largest share of the Hong Kong digital media, the previous year has witnessed a reduction in free press in Hong Kong without compare.