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Sensemaker: Hong Kong crackdown

Thursday 24 June 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Russian forces fired warning shots near a Royal Navy vessel that, Moscow’s defence ministry claimed, entered Russian territorial waters near Crimea. The UK denied the claim, saying the Russian shots were part of a “gunnery exercise” of which they had “prior-warning”.
  • John McAfee, antivirus entrepreneur turned cryptocurrency advocate, was found dead in a prison cell in Barcelona hours after a judge authorised his extradition to the US for tax evasion. Conspiracists quickly edited his Wikipedia page to state he was murdered.
  • The Ethiopian air force’s strike on a market in Tigray on Tuesday killed dozens of people, according to an eyewitness and medical official.
  • Britney Spears asked a Los Angeles court to end the conservatorship which has governed nearly every aspect of her life for 13 years, telling the court that the team managing her affairs won’t let her remove her IUD even though she wants another child.

Hong Kong crackdown

The life of Jimmy Lai – once a refugee from China, then a billionaire in Hong Kong, now serving a prison sentence there – traces that of his adopted home. He had made his first fortune in clothing and then went into the media because, he said, “by delivering information, you’re actually delivering freedom”.

It was when Lai saw freedom being violently crushed in the 1989 Tiananmen protest movement that he had made his first media investment (listen to Monday’s Sensemaker Audio for more). He founded Apple Daily, a tabloid newspaper with hard-hitting criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, six years later.

Soon after, China reclaimed Hong Kong from Britain, and Apple Daily made its mission the promotion of free speech and democracy in the “special administrative region.”

It was a mission that found an audience: Apple Daily’s circulation reached 400,000 copies in the first year of Beijing’s rule. It became Hong Kong’s second largest newspaper within a decade. Just over another decade later, in 2020, Lai launched an English version of the newspaper. Apple Daily had reached the height of its influence – and of Beijing’s ire.

In June that year, China’s rubber-stamp parliament by-passed Hong Kong’s legislative assembly to enact a national security law. It criminalises acts of protest and freedom of speech on Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing. Lai had called it “a death knell for Hong Kong”. 

Just over a month later, under this new law, police officers raided Apple Daily’s offices and arrested Lai – allegedly, for colluding with foreign forces; really, for supporting the pro-democracy protests that had engulfed Hong Kong in 2019.

As Lai languished in prison, his newspaper kept running – until today, when it will print its final edition. Here’s the latest in this tragic tale:

  • On Thursday last week, around 500 police officers raided Apple Daily, seized journalistic material, and arrested five of its executives, including editor-in-chief Ryan Law and chief executive Cheung Kim-hung. Police labelled the newspaper’s offices a “crime scene”.
  • The police acted under the national security law: they claimed that Apple Daily had called for sanctions against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. The police then froze £1.66 million in assets of three companies – Apple Daily Ltd, Apple Daily Printing Ltd and AD Internet Ltd – and locked bank accounts containing over $500 million.
  • On Monday, the parent company, Next Digital, said it would be unable to pay staff or cover operating costs without the release of the funds. It said it won’t make it past Saturday.
  • Yesterday, the police confirmed their arrest of Apple Daily’s lead editorial writer – again, under the national security law. Under the pen name Li Ping, the writer had often criticised government crackdowns on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and media. Li had described Lai’s arrest in 2020 as Beijing venting its anger over US sanctions. Due to concerns for its employees’ safety, especially after Li’s arrest, Apple Daily then announced it will close tomorrow. It didn’t even make it until Saturday.

What explains Beijing’s urgency to shut down Apple Daily? Exactly a week from now is a date – 1 July – of enormous significance. This year, it will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. In Beijing, China’s military might and political power will be on proud display. The Party, which will be pumping out propaganda, won’t want anything or anyone to rain on its parade.

In Hong Kong, 1 July marks the handover: when Britain transferred Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China, which promised to maintain Hong Kongers’ liberal way of life for at least 50 years. It was that way of life that had drawn Lai in. 

When he was just a boy, Lai worked as a porter at a railway station. One day at work, he was carrying the bag of a man who had come from Hong Kong and was eating a bar of chocolate while walking. The man gave Lai a tip, and the rest of his chocolate bar. “‘Hong Kong must be heaven,’” Lai recalled thinking upon tasting the chocolate. “I said to my mother that I needed to go.”

Before his arrest, Lai was asked whether the 2019 pro-democracy protests were self-defeating; that they only achieved the introduction of Beijing’s national security law. “We have a soul, we have dignity, we have pride as human beings,” Lai replied. “That’s important. We can’t have mass resistance again but we haven’t given up.”


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Sex appeal
The Court of Appeal began hearing a case brought by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the UK’s only Gender Identity Development Service. In December, the High Court had ruled that under-16s were “unlikely” to be capable of informed consent to gender reassignment treatment, including pausing puberty. The case centred on Keira Bell who was prescribed puberty blockers at the age of 16 by the Trust. Bell, in her mid-20s, said she regrets her decision to transition to a male and said that the Trust should have challenged it. The Court of Appeal now has to rule on whether under-16s can really consent to this treatment, when so many major life decisions lie ahead of them, and whether the treatment is, as the High Court found, “experimental” or, as the Trust claimed, a standard treatment for people who feel their biological sex and gender identity are mismatched.


New things technology, science, engineering

Streaming reality
The British government announced a review that will ask whether streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ should comply with Ofcom regulations. Ofcom, which is the government’s communications regulator, enforces a code of accuracy, impartiality, and other issues like harm and offence for traditional broadcasters like the BBC. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the proposal to apply the same code to streaming services was to “level the playing field” – but maybe something else has been bothering him. Last year, Dowden said Netflix’s hit show The Crown, a dramatisation of the Royal Family, should come with a warning that it’s not a reality show. “Without this,” he said, “I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact.”


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

African third wave
Africa’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recorded a rise in Covid cases. The rolling seven-day average of new cases across Africa went from 7,000 a day in mid-May to 25,000 a day last week. “We are not winning for sure,” John Nkengasong, director of the Centres, told the Financial Times (£). “Each time you get a wave the peak is worse than the previous one.” In this third wave, doctors are warning of dwindling hospital supplies, including beds and oxygen. The underlying problem is that Sub-Saharan African countries have only procured around one in 10 of the world’s eight billion doses of approved vaccines. Many have reached the end of their supplies from Covax, the UN’s programme to distribute vaccines to poor countries.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Human aliens
One way astronomers find planets is if they block out part of the light from their host star. New research flipped this technique on its head. “We asked, ‘Who would we be the aliens for if somebody else was looking?’” Lisa Kaltenegger, astronomy professor and director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University, told the Guardian. “There is this tiny sliver in the sky where other star systems have a cosmic front seat to find Earth as a transiting planet.” Kaltenegger and her colleagues identified 29 potentially habitable planets close enough to Earth so that any potential alien residents on those planets could witness our own planet “transit” across the sun – and even eavesdrop on our radio and television transmissions.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Millions of millionaires
Researchers at Credit Suisse, the investment bank, found that 5.2 million people became dollar millionaires across the world in 2020. The total number of millionaires is now 56.1 million. The new class of millionaires had their wealth boosted by recovering stock markets and rising house prices which, in turn, were driven by low interest rates and high levels of government spending to support Covid-battered economies. Without those asset prices increases, according to the researchers, “then global household wealth may well have fallen”.

Thanks for reading, and please share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia
@pcaruanagalizia

Photographs by Getty Images, Netflix


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