Suppression of free speech in Hong Kong bodes ill for Beijing’s credibility

In Hong Kong, freedom of the press is based on the principle of “one country, two systems,” which guarantees a high degree of autonomy. To forcibly deprive that freedom is absolutely unacceptable.

Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, known for its critical tone against China, published its final edition Thursday and ceased publication. Hong Kong authorities had arrested its founder and executive staff and frozen the company’s assets, forcing it to suspend operations.

It was the national security law, which came into effect in June last year to crack down on anti-government activists, that was used as a tool to suppress freedom of speech. The authorities initially emphasized a policy of employing the law in a restrained manner, but the recent abuse of the law has gone to enormous lengths.

Jimmy Lai, the founder of the newspaper and a pro-democracy activist, received a prison sentence in April for organizing an unauthorized demonstration. Lai’s stock assets, worth about ¥7 billion, and his bank accounts have been frozen under the national security law.

In June, senior officials, including the editor in chief and editorial writers, were arrested in succession, and it became difficult for the newspaper company and its affiliated firms to move their assets. Paralyzing both the functions of the newspaper company’s nerve center and its funds in order to put an end to its operation can be called a violent method.

The tone of the newspaper’s articles calling for sanctions against China and the Hong Kong government was seen as an act of “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security,” banned under the national security law. This is a unilateral interpretation exploiting ambiguous legal provisions.

Apple Daily continued to criticize China even after the implementation of the national security law and became the last bastion representing the free and diverse society of Hong Kong. As more Hong Kong media rely on investment from companies in mainland China, Apple Daily was a valuable presence for maintaining its operational independence.

Hong Kong authorities have also warned residents and businesses that attempted to support Apple Daily that their activities could be at risk of violating the national security law. The publication was effectively banned ahead of July 1, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

More than 100 people have been arrested under the national security law in the past year. The Apple Daily case could cause further attrition of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists and global companies, accelerating the “Chinafication” of Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s position as an international financial center will inevitably decline.

The United States criticized Hong Kong authorities, saying that they used the national security law to their advantage and arbitrarily targeted the media. Japan also expressed “grave concern” over a possible negative impact on freedom of speech and the press, which form the basis of Hong Kong’s democratic development.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has just ordered the creation of a “lovable” international image for China. The series of acts to suppress freedom of speech flies in the face of his own words. This would only undermine China’s credibility in the international community.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on June 25, 2021.