Closure of Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper should spur Ottawa to action, critics say – Toronto Star

People line up to buy a copy of the final issue of Apple Daily at a newspaper booth in downtown Hong Kong on June 24, 2021.

By Jeremy NuttallVancouver Bureau

Thu., June 24, 20214 min. read

Article was updated 1 hr ago

On its final day of publication, the last pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong sold every copy in the region within hours Thursday after being forced into closing by Beijing-backed authorities, who arrested a handful of the newspaper’s executives and editors last week while freezing some of its assets.

Hong Kong residents lined up at newsstands to grab a final copy of the one-million circulation Apple Daily, the Associated Press reported. Many say it was the last uninhibited critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its Hong Kong affiliates.

Observers say its death means the further destruction of free media in Hong Kong, a city that’s home to 300,000 Canadians and has strong ties to Vancouver and Toronto. Now, they say, Ottawa must push back against Beijing and help Hong Kongers left at risk as the attack on democracy proponents continues.

Founded by tycoon Jimmy Lai in 1995, Apple Daily was accused by authorities of conspiring with foreign nations to encourage sanctions on Hong Kong after Beijing breached the Sino-British joint declaration by forcing the National Security Law on the region. The law was brought in after massive anti-government protests starting in 2019, along with election laws aimed at keeping opposition out of the region’s legislature.

The declaration laid the path by which Hong Kong was handed over to mainland China in 1997. It specified the city would have high levels of autonomy until 2047, including benefits not enjoyed in mainland China such as freedom of the press and independent courts.

Those freedoms also allowed Apple Daily to exist and take aim at authorities.

“The Apple Daily was pretty much the only daily newspaper that could be counted upon to not exercise censorship in favour of the Hong Kong or Beijing governments,” said Alvin Cheung, a former Hong Kong lawyer and academic who now lives in Canada.

He said the paper’s closure doesn’t leave “much of anybody” performing the same function.

In an emailed statement, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau said the loss of the paper “significantly” degrades the “one country, two systems” principles laid out in the Sino-British Joint declaration.

“The forced closure of the newspaper, Apple Daily, as a result of charges under the National Security Law for Hong Kong is a significant blow to freedom of the press and freedom of speech in Hong Kong, and makes it clear that the powers under the National Security Law are being used as a tool to suppress media freedom and punish dissidents,” read the statement.

Vancouver NDP MP Jenny Kwan said the journalists who helped produce Apple Daily are now being “targeted” by the CCP, and said the federal government should make it easier for them to seek refuge in Canada.

Kwan said, so far, measures brought in by Ottawa to help Hong Kong democracy activists come to Canada are geared toward what would economically benefit Canada rather than humanitarian measures.

“How will we help (the Apple Daily staff) escape this persecution?” Kwan said. “We’re not. Let’s be clear about that.”

She said Canada’s response to China’s aggressions in the city have been weak and do not back up the Canadian government’s earlier claim it “stands with the people of Hong Kong.”

The attack on media could also end up affecting business, said a former Canadian ambassador to China.

A free press is an important tool for business, and Canadian businesses could see the latest attack on freedom and democracy in Hong Kong as another reason to re-evaluate their operations in the city, said Guy Saint-Jacques.

Canadian companies have done business in mainland China for a long time, Saint-Jacques noted, but were often headquartered in Hong Kong because of the reliability of its courts and media.

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But this could soon change.

“How big a risk is it to maintain operations there?” he said. “Companies will have to assess their operations and see what could be vulnerable, especially if they compete against Chinese-owned enterprises.”

He said it may be common to see business moving to places like Singapore rather than take risks in Hong Kong.

Cheuk Kwan of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China said China’s government has been working toward stamping out proponents of democracy in Hong Kong for some time. Now, more than ever, a “forceful” response from Western nations is required, Kwan said.

Kwan called the Apple Daily a “real newspaper disguised as tabloid” that presented critiques of the CCP and those doing its bidding in Hong Kong.

The local media, he said, has been “taken over by the Chinese government or proxies of Chinese government so that they’re no longer independent.”

Kwan said he now expects more targeting of democratic organizations to continue.

Cheung also slammed the Canadian government’s response to the ongoing situation in Hong Kong. He said there hasn’t been any “tangible” repercussions against those responsible for the destruction of freedoms.

He stressed anyone who has been paying attention would not have been surprised by the closure of the Apple Daily.

“The astute observer would have seen this coming a light year away, and the wilfully oblivious are going to remain wilfully oblivious.”

With files from the Associated Press