Members of The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association, Staffs of Ming Pao and supporters hold a banner displaying “They Can’t Kill Us All” following the brutal attack on former chief editor of the Ming Pao newspaper Kevin Lau. Photo: South China Morning PostWhen somebody rammed a stolen car into his Kowloon home last June and neatly placed an axe and meat cleaver in front of the battered gate protecting his wife and son, Jimmy Lai’s reporters instantly ran the story on Lai’s irreverent and extraordinarily popular Apple Daily website.
While police struggled to find the attackers or uncover a motive, Lai’s reporters pointed to splenetic attacks on their boss in Communist Party-controlled newspapers.
And when Lai’s Next Media Group suffered three further Triad-style attacks in quick succession – ahead of planned pro-democracy protests – the group uploaded an entertaining video re-enactment which showcased the group’s celebrated animation artists and underscored why political opponents might want to shut him down.
”The attacks have been increasing in frequency as the annual pro-democracy rally and anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China approaches on July 1st,” said the video report, noting that the string of attacks ”has not slowed production nor intimidated Jimmy Lai”.
This year, however, as the sensitive July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to Beijing again approaches, Lai faces a different kind of threat. Now it is Western financial institutions – banks steeped in the laws and freedoms of the British Empire – that stand accused of trying to bring Lai’s Hong Kong media business to its knees.
”They’ve got the Chinese running their business,” says Mark Simon, a senior Next Media Group executive, who is also managing director of Lai’s personal trust. ”It’s Putinesque.”
Hong Kong, the speck of land that the British Empire appropriated from the Qing Empire after the Opium Wars, has long succeeded in absorbing what it wants from both East and West. Financiers, writers, refugees and even members of the Chinese Communist Party underground have all flocked to shelter under the protective umbrella of British institutions at the gateway to mainland China.
In 1984, when Margaret Thatcher agreed with Deng Xiaoping to return Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, she placed great faith in Deng’s formula of ”one country, two systems”, which would ”remain unchanged for 50 years”. But as Hong Kong’s self-imposed 2017 deadline for universal suffrage draws closer, it seems she may have underplayed Deng’s crucial qualification: the city’s administrators must first be ”patriots” before they can be trusted to ”autonomously” run Hong Kong.
”A patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability,” said Deng, according to official accounts.
”Those who meet these requirements are patriots, whether they believe in capitalism or feudalism, or even slavery.”
Senior leaders, particularly a security chief called Tao Siju, made clear they could work with tycoons, professionals and even triads provided they were patriotic.
One patriot is King’s College-educated urban surveyor C.Y.Leung, who is now chief executive of Hong Kong. His challenge, since coming to power in 2012, has been to straddle the divergent objectives of patriotism, as defined by Beijing, and ”two systems”, as understood by Hong Kong’s 7 million people.
By then, the proportion of Hong Kongers who identified mainly as ”Chinese” had fallen to a record low.
Leung’s first move was to implement a ”patriotic education” curriculum in the city’s schools. When the first patriotic textbooks were distributed, however, tens of thousands of parents, students and civil society activists swarmed onto the streets and their grievances were given fulsome coverage in the independent press.
”We don’t need no thought control,” said one placard, in the Pink Floyd-themed demonstrations. The patriotic education program was withdrawn but the quest to create a more patriotic media has gathered pace.
”The gloves are off,” says senior finance journalist Shirley Yam, who is vice chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. ”The Party has always tried to impose its will, but now the way they do it is more brutal and direct.”
Jimmy Lai’s Next Media Group was not always known as a bastion of fearless journalism in Hong Kong. For decades that honour belonged to the Ming Pao newspaper stable, founded in 1959 by the legendary fiction author and political commentator Louis Cha.
Like other leading newspapers including the South China Morning Post, Ming Pao is battling against declining ad revenue and ownership has long since shifted to mainland-dependent business people who hold seats on Beijing’s quasi-legislative bodies.
But Ming Pao’s core of intrepid investigative reporters and their esteemed editor-in-chief, Kevin Lau, have maintained strong coverage of pro-democracy demonstrations and broken a slew of stories that infuriated powerful people, including leaders in both Beijing and Hong Kong.
”We maintained our traditions,” said senior Ming Pao reporter Phyllis Tsang.
In January this year, however, when rumours swirled around the Ming Pao newsroom in Chai Wan, Lau gathered his loyal staff to confirm that he was being replaced.
”We were all shocked,” says Tsang, recounting the events that led her to co-found the Ming Pao Staff Concern Group. ”He answered our questions very calmly and told us what he knew, and much more of what he didn’t know.”
The new editor was relatively unknown, except for a commentary he had written in support of ”patriotic education”.
On February 26, after thousands of protesters had taken to the streets in defence of media freedom, two men on a motorbike tailed Kevin Lau as he drove from his Kowloon home to Ming Pao headquarters, where he had been reassigned to a bookkeeping role.
When Lau stopped for breakfast in Quarry Bay, one of the men dismounted the bike and planted a meat cleaver deep into both sides of his upper back, exposing his chest cavity but stopping just short of his lungs. Four more chops were directed above and below both knees, severing the main nerves that enabled him to walk.
This time, 10,000 Hong Kong protesters took to the streets. They held banners that read: ”They can’t kill us all.”
Lau’s alleged assailants have since been detained across the mainland border. But, as with Jimmy Lai and several other Triad-style assaults on independent-minded journalists, neither motive nor mastermind has been discovered. Ham-fisted comments by Hong Kong’s police chief have encouraged allegations that this was a crime that he could not afford to solve.
”Before the truth is revealed, it is bewildering for the commissioner of police to have said there had been no direct evidence to suggest the assault was related to any journalistic work,” Lau said from his hospital bed.
”I stated that my family members and I are not involved in any financial, extramarital or other personal disputes. I am, therefore, positive that the assault is related to my job in the newspaper.”
Surgeons have had no success in connecting the nerve in one of Lau’s legs, according to friends of the family.
No motive or mastermind has been uncovered. But the spate of triad-style attacks on journalists has galvanised Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and attracted attention from abroad.
In April, US Vice-President Joe Biden pledged to resume congressional ”reporting” after meeting respected democracy leaders (whom pro-Beijing party newspapers promptly branded ”traitors”).
”We are very aware of the Hong Kong situation and we do not want to end up like that,” says Po-hua Liang, editor-in-chief of Taiwan’s Commonwealth magazine. ”Apple Daily is all that is left.”
Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai wasn’t fazed in 1994 when Beijing squeezed his hugely profitable clothing business from the mainland and choked the flow of Chinese advertising revenue after he wrote a critical commentary. Indeed, it freed him to establish the gaudy, salacious and iconoclastic tabloid that grew to make his name.
Unlike Ming Pao, Lai’s relentlessly innovative media business is designed to survive the vicissitudes of mainland China and also the death of print.
”In April last year he called in our editors and executives and said, ‘Eventually print is going to die and the whole newsroom has to go digital’,” says Daisy Li, a former internationally acclaimed Ming Pao journalist who now heads Lai’s digital operations in Taiwan.
Since then, says Li, traffic to the Hong Kong website has surged to more than 20 million page views each day, plus about 10 million news and animation video views.
What Lai didn’t plan for, however, is that his three biggest financial sector advertisers might desert on mass.
”The damage they are doing to their reputations is phenomenal, ” said Next Media’s Mark Simon, naming HSBC and Standard Chartered.
He says those two banks, both dual listed in London and Hong Kong, spent $HK28 million-$HK29 million (about $A4 million) advertising with Next Media in the year to September but neither has placed any ads since.
Simon says account managers at the banks have apologetically explained that they were implementing instructions from managers who were pressured by pro-Beijing officials.
A spokeswoman for Standard Chartered said she would not comment on what she called ”market rumours”. HSBC and another former advertiser, the Bank of East Asia, both said their advertising strategies were shaped by commercial requirements.
Jimmy Lai, who has dedicated his business to the prospect of ”free China”, has no intention of allowing multinational bankers to succeed where Triad-style attackers have not.
”We will make money,” says Simon, pointing to a statement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange that foreshadows a return to profitability in the year to March.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.