The untold story of Apple Daily: deception, misogyny and quiet Americans

Jul 4, 2021
apple daily hong kong

The Western media will repeatedly report that Beijing is to blame for Apple Daily’s problems in Hong Kong, hoping and praying that no one will point out the key fact that demolishes the argument: The newspaper group has been even more of a disaster in Taiwan, where it has stopped all its print publications, despite the island allegedly having glorious USA-Style True Democracy. USA! USA! 

First, let’s look at the numbers which are being omitted in reports about the closure of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper.

Not breakfast reading

1) Apple Daily printed 86,000 copies a day, which meant that 98.5 PER CENT of Hong Kong’s 6,500,000 adults did NOT buy it with their breakfast noodles.

Simple deception

2) The Western media is reporting that it was “Hong Kong’s biggest newspaper”. No. Not remotely true. Hong Kong’s most popular newspaper is free tabloid Headline Daily (1,012,000 a day, or more than ten times Apple’s circulation), and in the paid broadsheet category, leaders include Oriental Daily News (530,000 a day), and Sing Tao Daily (253,000 a day).

Hong Kong has always had a hunger for newspapers, and the mainstream voice has always been far, far more popular than Jimmy Lai’s one. That was true in the British era, and is true today, with the same newspaper groups at the top of the pile.

The big story in media

3) Maybe Jimmy Lai’s paper was top of the web charts? No. Alexa rankings for Hong Kong show HK01.com, Bastillepost and other online media far ahead of Apple Daily (and the fact that Hong Kongers visit mainland China shopping site Taobao significantly more than any local media site should tell us something).

HK01, in particular, has come from nowhere to dominate the local media scene. Lively, up-to-the-minute and often critical of the government, its existence and popularity gives the lie to the “press freedom is dead” trope of the Western media, and is the big story in media that foreign correspondents have all missed.

Who closed Apple?

4) Apple Daily was not closed down by the Hong Kong government, but by its own board, comprising local people hostile to China, plus Americans.

The HK$18 million that the government froze was a small sum for a paper for a company with HK$95 million in revenues every month, financial analysts say. The paper itself boasted of having cash accounts of HK$531 million, enough to last 18 months.

In fact, the entire financial picture of the media group is an under-reported, under-studied mystery.

The infamous narrative

5) So why did they close their own paper? As a PR coup, because they were absolutely confident that the international media, which means the Western media, would not tell the real story, but one which fits their anti-China narrative.

Oh, and also, it saves them money.

Apple Daily’s stunning lack of popularity among the good, honest, people of Hong Kong, was only eclipsed by its stunning lack of popularity among advertisers. The group has been losing more than HK$1 million a day, yes, A DAY, (which is more than US$1 million a week), amounting to several billion Hong Kong dollars over the past few years.

The paper clearly did not function commercially as a media company, so any healthily skeptical person would ask themselves: what was it for?

Pro-democracy?

Oh, and another thing. Apple Daily wasn’t  “pro-democracy” either.

But more about that later. Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start, as the great poet Oscar Hammerstein II said.

 

This headline from a UK newspaper called ‘i’ (for “Independent”) shows the typically false reporting characteristic of coverage of this story

Chapter 1: brunch and pornography

I First met Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, founder of Apple Daily, at a politician-packed brunch party in 1995. It was at the luxurious Hong Kong apartment of L. Gordon Crovitz, a senior executive for the Wall Street Journal group. His wife Minky was the perfect hostess.

Garment tycoon Lai wasn’t how I expected him to be, but I liked him. Behind his sad puppy eyes was toughness. He was in the process of launching an oppositional, China-baiting newspaper.

We all congratulated him for taking a step that was clearly brave and very likely foolhardy: he would inevitably get into trouble.

It was only after I had left that brunch party that something occurred to me: the hosts were all right wing United States people, and the invited politicians were all from the Hong Kong opposition. It was like a convention of people who didn’t like China.

Misogyny rules

Over the next few years, Apple Daily carved its place in the city’s media scene over the next few years, and this reporter, like most Hong Kong people, were shocked and horrified.

Lai’s publications made a niche for themselves by taking the lowest of the low paths. There was sex and sensationalism, outrage and scandal, allegations and celebrity gossip of the tawdriest kind, and worse, pornographic stories and  reviews/ critiques of sex workers and massage parlours.

The Hong Kong community is a rather gentle, low-crime, conservative, majority female society, and the present portrayal of Apple Daily as the natural voice of the community was and is deeply misleading.

The paper, crude, brutal and sexist, was for men. Jimmy Lai, in a 1995 interview with the South China Morning Post, said: “Our porn page is not very well done, but we have to have it because man has basic needs.”

Lowered standards

Other publications lowered their standards to compete, and the Hong Kong newsstands became embarrassing to walk past. Remember the “downblouse” photo of schoolgirl Alice Patten on the front page with the headline: “The peaches are ripening”?

The misogyny and cruelty to women and children were shocking, with people being hurt constantly – and discovering that the newspaper simply didn’t care.

After a few years, it felt like most people knew individuals who had been hurt by Apple Daily. The Hong Kong public preferred its traditional newspaper voice, and Jimmy Lai’s newspaper could never rise above being a minority interest, thank God.

apple daily hong kong

Another Western media group gets it wrong: the information above was distributed by AFP, one of the biggest news agencies in the world.

One 1998 story, sadly typical of the paper, stuck in my mind: Apple Daily published a feature about an unbelievably crass man who apparently sought out prostitutes soon after his wife had thrown their children out of a window to their deaths before jumping after them.

The paper later admitted paying the man to pose in bed with the sex workers for the photographs, knowing that it would be the most talked-about story of the week.

The paper was in trouble with the law, usually because of contravening the rules against obscene publications, every two or three months.

Flouted ethics

It also flouted basic journalistic ethics. Chequebook journalism was the norm. In 2000, an Apple reporter received a 10-month jail sentence for bribing police officers to reveal information. In 2019, the paper was widely reported to have given HK$1.5 million to a taxi driver for video footage of a married celebrity canoodling with a woman who wasn’t his wife.

Yes, it also did some positive work, like attacking civil servants for doing their jobs badly, but those few tales became over-politicized to an extent that they were not journalism, but political campaigning for its endless pro-America, anti-China message.

Then one day, I got a call. Apple Daily senior executive Mark Simon wanted to meet me and would like to me to give them some help.

Chapter 2: the money pit

Mark Simon, now there’s an interesting character. People were already wondering if Jimmy Lai’s right-hand man was a CIA agent, given the newspaper’s anti-China stance.

I found the notion unlikely, and not just because we were friends. He was enormous and unhealthy looking, and would be unlikely to pass the most basic fitness tests. Also, he liked the limelight too much to be an agent, although there is a sub-group of agents who do their work in the spotlight.

In a discussion on that topic, someone asked me a related question: If not an agent, was Mark Simon a CIA asset, witting or unwitting?

I gave her a reply that my father’s experiences taught me: “Sweetheart, almost every journalist in the world is a CIA asset, witting or unwitting. That’s how the Western press works.”

apple daily hong kong

Next Digital’s Taiwan operation has been a financial disaster: picture by Solomon203/ Wikicommons

Animated news

I met Mark at a coffee shop in Kowloon’s Ho Man Tin district where he introduced me to Marina Shifrin, an American woman who had been hired to write scripts for a new “3D animated news” venture for Next Digital, the parent company of the newspaper. The operation was based in Taiwan, where the group was doing very badly.

The animations were unfunny, getting few hits and were not being widely shared. Mark wanted me to give her the key storytelling points to creating viral media. It was hard to boil down decades of experience into a short lecture, but to sum up, I told her to be authentic, funny, detached and offbeat. We swapped contact details.

I left the meeting pondering how long a principled American woman could stay at such an unprincipled company.

Bigotry

For Hong Kong’s majority population a significant problem was Apple Daily’s undisguised bigotry. Apple popularized the term “locusts” for people from mainland China coming to Hong Kong.

This was a horrific mistake in the eyes of this community, where many people had mainland cousins, and recognized that the city’s businesses were reliant on mainland Chinese customers.

But here was the puzzle. Despite the repulsive content, there was a rock-solid partnership between the Apple Daily crowd and American media people—and on particular, the most hawkish and right wing of people in that country.

L. Gordon Crovitz remained closely in the loop. Crovitz’s wife, Minky Worden, was “media advisor” to the Hong Kong opposition for several years. Mark Simon had a US Naval Intelligence background and became president of Republicans Abroad in Hong Kong.

apple daily hong kong

Other media highlighted the fact that Apple-style muckraking made ordinary people feel unsafe

HK people generous

To combat its bad reputation for bigotry, Apple sometimes accused others of the same thing. In 2013, it ran a front-page anti-government “scoop” reporting that Executive Council member Franklin Lam, said: “I utterly discriminate against new immigrants.”

Unfortunately for the reporters, the meeting had been recorded and the tape showed that what he actually said was: “I utterly do not discriminate against new immigrants. On arrival in Hong Kong, they are legally Hong Kong citizens. They are also first-class citizens.”

The truth is that Hong Kong people are generous, and the city has an extensive program to help mainland immigrants settle in.

apple daily hong kong

Jimmy Lai meets Mike Pence: picture from Mike Pence’s office

Chapter 3: universal suffrage

The world is being told that Apple Daily is a pro-democracy paper. Let’s talk about that. In 2013 and 2014,  Hong Kong civil servants announced the results of a years-long process to introduce a one-person-one-vote system to this city.

A Chinese University survey of the public showed that some 55 percent of people were in favor of proceeding with the government’s universal suffrage plan, providing that satisfaction could be achieved on the composition of the “broadly representative nominating committee”.

But Apple Daily and the more strident members of the opposition called for the whole universal suffrage package to be jettisoned, as not being sufficiently close to Western liberal democracy. (In fact, the Hong Kong system allowed direct voting for the leader, unlike UK and US systems, where you vote for parties, and the party or the electoral college appoint a leader.)

Faux outrage

The Western media, including this reporter, who was writing op-eds for the New York Times at the time, got caught up in the faux outrage, and the path to democratic self-government that Hong Kong civil servants had taken literally years to build was demolished in a single day.

Many academics and journalists (including the present writer), later realized that we’d made a huge error, denying Hong Kong people an important chance to take the first steps towards a more democratic system.

Getting it right at last

In Taiwan, Marina Shifrin worked until 3 o’clock in the morning and then made a video of herself holding an “I quit” sign and dancing at multiple locations in the Next Media offices.

It went viral on the internet, winning her 19 million views, plus a job offer of working in televison in the United States. She left Taiwan as fast as she could.

Revolution consultants

In late 2014, Western “revolution consultants” revealed that they had been working with Hong Kong anti-China campaigners for almost two years before the “Occupy Central” campaign shut down much of the business center.

Leaked documents revealed that Jimmy Lai was secretly handling the finances for those protests: more than HK$40 million (US$5.2 million) came from unknown sources and went to hostile groups in Hong Kong.

In one of the emails, Lai spoke scathingly about the protest leaders, saying they “could accomplish nothing if there was no help”.

Millions of dollars

Hong Kong was swept by rumors, later confirmed, that the US State Department had a budget of millions to destabilize China by poisoning minds against the country in its outlying areas – Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia. 

Piece by piece, stories of unexplained payments popped up. It became clear that the cash coming through the National Endowment for Democracy was peanuts compared to money from other American sources. But it was hard to find the links between the odd bits of news that popped up.

For example, in May 2016 the Independent Commission Against Corruption highlighted an undeclared payment of HK$250,000 from Mark Simon to an opposition politician. It was not clear where the cash originated.

But by that time, observers of the Hong Kong scene noted that we very often saw the same factors coming together: Americans, mystery money, Jimmy Lai, and anti-China politicians.

Aimless violence

In 2019, civil unrest again broke out and Apple Daily strongly backed the pro-independence protesters calling for Hong Kong to be “freed” from China, despite the fact that between 80 and 93 percent of Hong Kong people strongly oppose independence.

The protesters wanted Donald Trump to take Hong Kong from China, possibly the worst idea in history.

Bizarrely, Apple Daily gave the biggest encouragement to the aimlessly violent people who had no plan other than to destroy Hong Kong’s economy, close the airport, and generally cause mayhem. There was no conceivable way that the endless destruction of public facilities would lead to more democracy, as Hong Kong people pointed out repeatedly in talk shows and on social media.

Indeed, it was obvious that the process Apple Daily was encouraging could have no possible outcome except to cause Beijing to intervene – which was, of course, the whole point. Accusations that this city was just a pawn in a bigger game in which Jimmy Lai was serving the United States became impossible to dismiss.

The US right-wing

Also clear was that Jimmy Lai strongly favored the right wing of the United States, since they were more actively anti-China. In May, 2020, Jimmy Lai launched a  #TrumpSavesHK campaign on its front page. “Trump is a statesman,” Lai wrote in the newspaper in October.

Behind the scenes, Apple Daily dug into its coffers to commission a fake report “revealing” that Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden had secret dealings with China. Managed by Mark Simon, the project was a direct bid to interfere in the US elections, and ensure a Trump win.

Martin AspenAgain, we saw creative, out-of-the-box thinking, but also an appetite for deliberate deception of the public – the journalist credited with writing the dossier didn’t exist, but was a fake name with a computer-generated face.

Throughout this period, the paper called for international sanctions on Hong Kong, even though the city was being hammered for reasons mired in disinformation. I don’t think anyone taking a genuinely detached look at the paper’s actions over the past few years could possibly call it pro-democracy, or even pro-Hong Kong. It worked instead to actively harm this community.

Oh, and the misogynistic harm to women and children has continued. Earlier this month, Hong Kong saw the end of a court case involving Apple Daily staff pretending to be related to a female celebrity in order to get a birth certificate for her child, which they then published.

On board

This month, the board of Apple Daily, not the Hong Kong government, closed the newspaper.

Who is on the board? There’s American journalist Mark Clifford. There’s L. Gordon Crovitz, the charming but staunchly right wing former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, who invited me to that brunch party at his home 26 years ago.

His wife Minky Worden has become a key voice in the US campaign against the 2022 Winter Olympics in China.

Ms Worden is a senior staff member at Human Rights Watch, a group which has been criticized by more than 100 cultural figures, including Nobel Peace Laureates, for its  “close ties to the government of the United States”.

Since Olympic activities in mainland China always involve Hong Kong city too, the success of her campaign would further harm the long-suffering people of this city.

Beijing winter olympics boycott


Left suddenly

Meanwhile, Mark Simon, who told journalists he was in Hong Kong to stay, left the city suddenly to move to Taiwan shortly before the promulgation of a US-style security law, which among other things, targets people who take overseas money to interfere in local politics.

But of course none of this will be covered in the international media. It doesn’t fit the narrative.

The Western media will repeatedly report that Beijing is to blame for Apple Daily’s problems in Hong Kong, hoping and praying that no one will point out the key fact that demolishes the argument: The newspaper group has been even more of a disaster in Taiwan, where it has stopped all its print publications, despite the island allegedly having glorious USA-Style True Democracy. USA! USA!

Talk to the people of Hong Kong

If you want the real story of this newspaper, perhaps speak to the 98.5 per cent of Hong Kong adults who did not buy a copy of Apple Daily with their breakfast every day.

And perhaps spend a moment reflecting on Jimmy Lai’s connections with the right wing of the United States, and what the jailed publisher thinks of Hong Kong’s anti-China movement – that they “could accomplish nothing if there was no help”.

This article is republished from Friday Everyday 29 June 2021. Click here to read the original article.

Nury Vittachi is a long-time Hong Kong resident originally from Sri Lanka; came to Hong Kong more than 30 years ago to work for the Far Eastern Economic Review.

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