Mark Clifford, one of the former independent non-executive directors at Next Digital, told a congressional hearing on Oct. 14 how press freedom is under attack in Hong Kong, as evident by how the Chinese regime has driven Apple Daily to its deathbed.
Apple Daily, which is published by Next Digital, is a Hong Kong newspaper known for publishing voices critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and voices supportive of the Hong Kong protesters. The paper printed its last edition on June 24, after printing its first edition in 1995.
Clifford said Beijing has broken its promises written in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, and the paper’s founder Jimmy Lai has been in prison for “exercising the freedoms that are promised” in that document.
“This has the seal of the People’s Republic of China on it, and yet, it’s not even really worth the paper that’s printed on,” Clifford said while holding a copy of the Basic Law in his hand. The hearing, which focused on the current state of civil and political rights in Hong Kong, was co-hosted by Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and James McGovern (D-Mass.).
The Basic Law protects Hongkongers rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, neither of which is available to Chinese people in mainland China. The rights are guaranteed for at least 50 years under a governance framework called “one country, two systems,” which Beijing agreed to implement when it signed the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, a legally binding international treaty.
“What we’ve seen is that these promises that the Chinese government solemnly made cannot be trusted,” Clifford added.
Clifford is currently the president of the advocacy group Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong. He and three other directors resigned (pdf) from their Next Digital positions in early September, citing a “climate of fear” caused by Hong Kong’s draconian national security law.
Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms have been drastically eroded after Beijing imposed the national security law on the city in late June last year. The law criminalizes vaguely defined crimes such as subversion and collusion with foreign forces with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The newsroom was raided again on June 17, when about 500 police officers stormed the paper’s headquarters. On the same day, five executives of the paper, including editor-in-chief Ryan Law and chief executive officer Cheung Kim-hung, were arrested. At that time, Lai was already in prison for taking part in unauthorized assemblies in 2019.
Clifford told the two congressmen what the Hong Kong police did inside the newsroom during the second raid.
“They ended up pretty much stripping the shelves bare. They questioned journalists about more than 100 different articles that have been written—who wrote it, who edited it, who [was] involved,” he said.
As of now, Clifford said there are seven Next Digital employees in jail, awaiting trial on national security charges. Among them is Lai, who is accused of “colluding with foreign forces.”
“These trials are in some cases a year or two off; they’re just presumed guilty,” he added.
Though Apple Daily is not printing papers anymore and its website is down, the Hong Kong government is still investigating the company and its senior staff, according to Clifford.
“We now have four different investigations going against the company and against directors,” Clifford said, “trying to blame us for the fact that the company is out of business, when they [Hong Kong government] put us out of business by freezing assets and essentially throwing the senior leadership in jail.”
One of the investigations is being carried out by a special inspector appointed by Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary. According to Hong Kong media, the inspector raided Next Digital’s office on Sept. 28, in an effort to obtain the company’s financial records.
Clifford said the Hong Kong authorities went to the banks to freeze Lai’s assets and his bank accounts.
The Hong Kong government “told the bankers, including bankers at Citibank, that if anybody touched those accounts, the bankers and anybody did the touching would be subject to seven years in prison. This is pretty heavy-duty stuff.”
The sanctions the U.S. government has placed on Hong Kong and Chinese officials for suppressing the city’s democracy “have certainly gotten people’s attention,” Clifford said, but the U.S. government could “cut deeper.”
Clifford explained the United States could further stand up for Hong Kong by targeting business interactions, since some work for private companies “under the veneer for the Hong Kong government.”
One example named by Clifford was the special inspector investigating Next Digital. The inspector, Clement Chan Kam-wing, is the managing director for assurance of the accounting firm BDO, one of the biggest accounting firms in the world.
“Do we want to look back, do any of us want to look back later on in our lives and say that we didn’t do what we could to stop this, we just let companies pursue short term profit when we could have stopped it as a government,” Clifford said.