National Security Law Wipes Out Hong Kong’s Press Freedom
Interview with Simon Lee

Press freedom in Hong Kong has rapidly declined after the passage of the National Security Law. How does this state of affairs appear in the eyes of a former executive of Next Digital? The Liberty spoke with Simon Lee to find out.

(Interviewer: Hanako Cho, Izumi Yamamoto)


Simon Lee, Former Executive of Next Digital
Simon Lee is one of the co-founders of the Lion Rock Institute, a Hong Kong-based think tank promoting a free market. He joined the Apply Daily, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper, in 2005 as an editorial writer and an executive for Next Digital. Currently, Lee is a resident of Washington, D.C.

――When did you realize the danger of the National Security Law?

Lee: If you recall the way they passed and imposed the National Security Law, it was done in a hurry and it was done in a black box. They had all these Hong Kong National People’s Congress members go to Beijing, but none of them knew what the law was about. None of them knew the details. They were only told to be in Beijing and rubber-stamp it.

When I look at the way they imposed it, I had a feeling that if they had to impose it like that, they would apply it equally drastically. That was my gut feeling back then. Hong Kong was no longer safe for people who speak out and have an opinion on things.

I left Hong Kong a few days after they passed the law. I felt it was unsafe for me to stay in Hong Kong, and it turned out I was right. The police came to Apple Daily’s office just a few week afterwards. I left at the right time.

――Could you tell us more specifically how Apple Daily’s reporting was controlled by the Hong Kong National Security Law which went into effect in June 2020?

Lee: Actually, it is ironic because up ‘til today, there were no details on which specific stories or articles offended Beijing or violated the law. They had a number, but we never knew which particular article was in question. The founder of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai, and a few of our editorials are now incarcerated. One is the editor-in-chief for the Apple Daily’s English edition. Another is the Apple Daily’s editorial writer. I knew these two gentlemen for more than ten years, and from what I know, they were way more moderate than conservative that I am. It would be a surprise to me that they violated any National Security Law.

These two gentlemen were very careful, very conservative, most of the time, very moderate. They are very seasoned journalists. They knew the red lines. When they write about opinions, most of the time they refer to opinions of other people. If you cannot even write about other people’s opinion, then I don’t know what you can do in Hong Kong anymore.

Apple Daily was only reflecting what was going on in Hong Kong. If those editorial staffs were violating the National Security Law, it means Hong Kong was in a very dire situation back then. As a Hong Konger myself, I didn’t see any Hong Kong people trying to threaten Hong Kong at all.


Hong Kong as a Police State

――You mentioned the red line. Would you please tell us the recent condition journalists in Hong Kong are now facing?

Lee: As far as I know, a lot of Hong Kong journalists left and are now working overseas. Just one example, the chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalist Association, Mr. Chen Longsheng, is now in a steady league in the United Kingdom. He was covering a reporting in Hong Kong and the police intervened. Mr. Chen was accused of obstructing the police from carrying out their duty. But at that time he was just doing his job.

It was actually recorded in video that the police was very hostile to him, not once, but many times. I remember even back in 2019, I saw how hostile the police were to young people, to journalists. I think that kind of hostility built up over time since the Umbrella protest in 2014.

I must add that John Lee, the chief executive of Hong Kong, is running Hong Kong as if he were still a police officer. The chief executive of Hong Kong was a police officer. His secondary-in-command was a police officer. Hong Kong is effectively governed by a group of people who used to wear uniforms and see everyone on the street as a potential criminal. I think it is not an exaggeration to call Hong Kong a police state now.

――So has it become a police state?

Lee: Hong Kong is a police state, and that is the situation where reporters operate. So it went from being one of the world’s most free cities to a police state where it is not only about what you do but more about who you are. There are some reporters who are working for the state-affiliated companies or state-affiliated media, and they have a free pass. They are sometimes quite critical of the government policies and this is okay, but it is only for some people to have the privilege to criticize the government. Most other people have to remain silent. I don’t think that is real freedom. I think it is just for the show.


The Illusion of Hong Kong’s Press Freedom

――Do you think it is almost impossible to express their own opinion against the administration?

Lee: I think in principle it is not only by looking at whether someone is critical of the government administration but whether this is freedom for everybody. I think we have to distinguish that. If only a few people can be critical of the government then it is a privilege. If everyone can be critical of the government then it is freedom. There are some media companies which are quite critical. But unfortunately, they were the very few that could have the privilege to do so.

Because only a few which are affiliated with state media can.

They are state media and their media more aligned with the government in the past. They had all sorts of relationships with the government. The government still needs to have a platform that appears that they can reach to the people which people can trust. Otherwise, if you are too dependent on one-way communication, it will also be a problem for the government, right? They have to present an illusion that they are still media.

I think the function of media is both ways. It is both for the government to communicate to the people, to inform the people in one way. But on the other hand, it also needs to give the people the kind of perception that it has an avenue to voice out their concerns to the government. I think that is what a genuine free media could do. But in a ‘pretend one’ like Hong Kong’s, then everything is orchestrated. Even the critical opinion might sometimes be driven by vested interest or by other political agendas. You always have different political agendas in the government.

I see nowadays in Hong Kong when the media are critical of the government, I see them more as the internal political division rather than genuinely representing the voice of Hong Kong people. I don’t think that is what Hong Kong people think.

――As you said, Mr. Chen Longsheng, Chairman of the Journalists Association, was accused of obstructing the office of the clerk. What are your thoughts on the prosecution of Mr. Chen? Are the authorities trying to dissolve the Journalists Association?

Lee: Yes. There has been a lot of hostility against the Journalist Association, and I think the job of being a reporter, in general. I remember during the protest, the police questioned whether they are reporters, and they say, “Why are the reporters so involved in the movement?”

But as a matter of fact, I think reporters are people too. They have feelings. You cannot have people who are at the front line seeing all the injustice and brutality and then just accept that and not doing anything. The reporters are not actually intervening most of the time. They just take pictures. They record the facts. That is what they do. To the police, that is something they cannot accept.

I have to add one more thing. According to Hong Kong’s police code of conduct, police should wear the badge when they’re working. But what happened in Hong Kong was during the protest, all the police took off their badges and the numbers. They did not want to be identified.

The question was, why did they take off the badges and the numbers? Because they knew they were doing something wrong and reporters were there to witness their wrongdoings. I interpret that as the police, they knew they were wrong, but they had no experiences, they had no way to explain why they were behaving as such. So they turned their anger on the reporters, which is totally unreasonable, but that’s the way it is.


Former Colleagues Carry the Culture of Apply Daily and Venture Out Into New Media

――How are the people who formerly worked for the Apple Daily dealing with their career after they lost their job?

Lee: Yeah. A lot of our former colleagues started a new life in a totally different area. Some of them changed their job. Some of them work in some other industry. But I do know a few of them who continue to run their small publishing platform to disseminate information to the people. They have different ventures. Some of them focus on financial information, business news, entertainment news and sporting news.

I think it is a different kind of environment so it is actually very difficult for them to do the work as they were. But from what they do, firstly, you can easily see that they used to work in the Apple Daily because you can sense the unique style and attitude. And secondly, I must say, after leaving the big company, and everyone is working on their own, sometimes they do have interesting innovation and creativity that I’ve never seen before. So for those of our former colleagues who are continuing to work in the field of journalism, they are doing a good job. They are innovating.

――Could you explain what you mean by the innovative work they are doing right now?

Lee: The way they present the stories or sometimes the kind of stories that they discover are different from what they used to be. Some of them cover lifestyle or entertainment news. I can see a lot more personal character in the work that they do. You can really identify who is doing the reporting. I think that is a real compliment to a journalist when you can identify his work even without looking at the byline. I think it is a great success.

That kind of financial information or sporting information will not be suppressed unless they try not to violate the deadline.


The CCP ‘Must Present That Big Brother Is United’

――Do you still have hope? Do you think Hong Kong’s freedom will prevail in the long term?

Lee: I am positive about that. But if we could, I hope the pathway would be less costly and less suffering. At the end of the day, most of the time when you see a society facing all these challenges, it is the people who suffer, not the elites at the top.

I have to add that if you look at the Chinese Communist Party, being a high-level party member is actually a very risky business. Most people see they are powerful, but I also see them in a very precarious situation where you can easily be seen as an enemy of other powerful people. So for small people like me, I don’t think Xi Jinping was seeing me in 10,000 years. I am not that endangered by them, or I am not endangering them as well.

However, if you are the chief political rival in the top level in the Communist Party, not only your life is at stake, your family, your whole faction of the party, is at stake. So they must present to the outside that big brother is united. But I think amongst them, big brothers are fighting every day.


The Spirit of Hong Kong Will Carry on

Lee: The [Beijing] government wanted to break down Apple Daily. The target was, first and foremost, Mr. Jimmy Lai. Jimmy Lai is personally being targeted by the regime. The rest of us might not be as important in the government’s point of view. But I think they underestimated us in a way.

They don’t understand that everyone believes in freedom, everyone believes in something while working in the Apple Daily and Next Digital. So it was part of our culture. But of course, for someone who worked in a bureaucracy, for someone who worked in a machine, they would never understand that.

What we have been doing and will do is to continue the spirit of the Hong Kong people. Hong Kong is not just a geographical idea, a geographical concept. They always see Hong Kong as a place. Hong Kong is more than just a place. Hong Kong is a culture.

For the 20 some years Apple Daily was running in the city, we were evolving with Hong Kong’s culture. When I saw the early Apple Daily newspaper, the language we use, the story rewrites until the very last day, Apple Daily lived with Hong Kong as part of Hong Kong’s cultural evolution.

If they thought Hong Kong as an idea could be rewritten by them or could be totally wiped out by all these propaganda, then they have underestimated us. It is not because of us, not because we are different. It is because the idea that Hong Kong as a culture, Hong Kong is more powerful than they thought.

Freedom is a precious thing, and freedom always exists, at least inside your head as long as you are free to think. What Hong Kong people now fight for, I think, first and foremost is the Hong Kong identity. A lot of people are defending Hong Kong culture, defending Hong Kong people’s identity, defending our language. That is the basis for you to think as a free man. This is my wish.

I wish Hong Kong people all over the world, be they in Japan or in the U.K. or in the United States, Canada or Australia, we are the ambassador of our culture. There will eventually be a more Japanese version of Hong Kong people. There will be a more British way for Hong Kong people to live. There will be American Hong Kong people. There will be Canadian Hong Kong people. But that is a good thing. That makes Hong Kong’s culture more diverse and more vibrant. I see this as an opportunity. Hong Kong is not just a place, it is a spirit, and I hope we can come up with more good things for the world. Of course, if one day the Hong Kong culture can go back to Hong Kong, that would be the best. That’s the hope.

National Security Law Wipes Out Hong Kong’s Press Freedom
Copyright © IRH Press Co.Ltd. All Right Reserved.