Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s largest independent paper, was recently forced to shut down. What will this mean for the future of Hong Kong? And why is killing press freedom in Hong Kong actually a bad move for the CCP?
Today, we sit down with Mark Simon, righthand man to Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, and a former Apple Daily executive.
Jan Jekielek: Mark Simon, it’s such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Mark Simon: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Mark, in a recent op-ed, you put it pretty bluntly talking about the Apple Daily. You said, “It didn’t just die, it was murdered.” Tell me about this.
Mr. Simon: It was a living organism and what I mean by that is a living company. It was an ongoing concern, it had money in the bank. There was no reason for the Apple Daily to go out of business, none whatsoever. So if something is involuntarily removed from the marketplace, that’s what we would call a murder in the market in my mind. That’s the myth that they’re trying to get past now. They’re trying to say, “Oh, well, it wouldn’t have lasted much longer. It wouldn’t have made it much past a few more months.” No, that’s not true.
There was enough cash, a filing was in with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. It could have made it 18 months. After that, who knows? Maybe you don’t make it, but 18 months is a long time in the business world. So they came in and they killed it. I really do believe that when they found out we could last 18 months, that’s when they really started moving—that in conjunction with the July 1st date.
Mr. Jekielek: My back-of-napkin calculation here is that something like 8 per cent of Hong Kongers were actually paid subscribers of the Apple Daily.
Mr. Simon: That’s pretty amazing.
Mr. Jekielek: I’d say that’s pretty significant market penetration. I want to talk about that, but before we do that, Mark, I’ve seen you described in all sorts of ways with respect to your relationship with Jimmy Lai, who was the publisher of Apple Daily and also the parent company. Can you please tell me, what is your role in the Apple Daily, exactly?
Mr. Simon: How about I do a quick rundown? I was hired in 2000. I came on with Jimmy and the private side with a company called Admark, which was an online retailer. By the way, we laid off a lot of people there unfortunately. After that failed, I became the assistant general manager at Apple Daily, and that was a business role and a business function. Then from there, I became the general manager of Apple Daily. Then from there, I became the head of the internet division, because we pulled the internet division out, I pulled that out.
I was involved in all aspects. For example, I started our fashion magazine, which was fabulously very, very big. Actually, for a while, I was also the notional head of our crime team, because we had some legal issues going on and we thought that if I was in charge of it, they would be less likely to do something. This is in the early 2000s. So I was involved in just about every aspect of the paper.
Then we went to Taiwan a little bit later in the early 2000s. When we went to Taiwan, I was right there from the start. I was right there working on the printing plants, getting everything up and running, and doing the regulatory affairs issues with the government. There hasn’t been a major business initiative with Apple Daily and with the next group that I hadn’t been a part of. For a while there, my title was group director and they gave me that title because they said, “We don’t know what he does, but he seems to be in everything.” It’s a senior role and a senior executive role.
I was never on the board of directors. And so then last fall, I should say late last fall, I resigned from the group and I pulled out. I had a couple of tasks left to do, major tasks which the director and the chairman of the board wanted me to do. I’m almost done with those. That’s everything from IT, to building instruction, to some revamps in some editorial areas that they wanted done.
Since that time, basically I’ve been working for Jimmy. Then once Jimmy went to jail, I was his representative. After Jimmy went to jail—I’m very open about it—the Apple Daily people really pulled back. That was smart. In other words, I’m a wanted individual, just so everybody knows. It’s no secret that there are warrants out for my arrest. The Hong Kong Chinese government is very glad I’m not there, because why would you want to have an American causing you trouble with the administration or the U.S. State Department?
So I spent most of my time now in Taiwan working. Mr. Lai has substantial holdings in other areas. It’s amusing, because people always say, “Well, what’s he going to do now? He’s going to lose Apple Daily.” Well, Mr. Lai has effectively spent out of his own pocket since 2016, probably 180 million U.S. dollars. In other words, he’s loaned the company about 65 million U.S. dollars recently to keep it going.
Then before that he bought the animation division for $100 million, which was a nice round number for an animation division. I’m not sure it was worth that much, but he wanted to get money into the company. He also has never taken a paycheck from the company of any significance. He takes board fees because you have to, but everything else he does on his own, from entertaining people in his house, to entertaining clients at his house when I’m there.
My main claim is that I’m really a revenue guy. In other words, my job is to bring revenue into the company and revenue into the group. And that’s how I think of myself. I don’t think of myself as a journalist, I must tell you that right now. I don’t claim that. A media executive is what you’d call me, I guess.
Mr. Jekielek: As you said, you were involved in just about every aspect at one point or another. And that’s a very interesting vantage point to look at things from. I want to jump back to this idea, that back-of-the-napkin, 8 per cent of Hong Kongers are actually paid subscribers to this media. That is a market penetration that most newspapers or media would only dream of.
Mr. Simon: It’s 8 per cent that were basically subscribers. We had 8 per cent that were subscribers, well over 600,000. But we also sold 120,000 copies of the actual print paper on the street every day. That tends to be a little bit older demographic, they tend to like their newspaper. But then on top of that, everybody has non-paid users, people who don’t pay. That was another 1.1 million. So Apple Daily has this unique situation in that by ACNielsen, by Comscore, we were probably the number one by most estimates, the number one news media house in Hong Kong.
We do have a pro-government rival called Oriental Daily News, and they do a pretty good job, actually, but not on politics. On politics, they’re pure pro-Beijing, but they do a pretty good job in the tabloid area and the other things. But they don’t have much of a web presence, their web presence is free. So Apple Daily sets the agenda there. There’s one thing I always say about Apple Daily. Apple Daily is the group of guys who go up to the mountain and they go right below the tip of the mountain and they plant the flag.
So if we’re 100 yards up the mountain in trouble and all those things, everybody else can come up to 90 yards. In other words, everybody else can come up just below you. They can come up and do the hit just below you. They can do the story because Apple Daily did the story, so we’ve got to do this story. Apple Daily’s critical of the chief executive, so we can be somewhat critical of the chief executive. Because that’s what the Hong Kong people feel.
One of the things that people forget about Apple Daily is how sensitive it is to the people on the street. In other words, we are a bazaar. We are a bazaar newspaper, I should say. We were a bazaar newspaper with a tabloid front. So think New York Post, New York Daily News-type news coverage which is a lot of fun, to be honest with you. And then on the inside, you’ve got the opinion page of the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post with serious political issues.
Since 2014, we’ve really been almost two newspapers. We are a broad sheet, in other words. It’s a big paper you fold out, so it’s not the classic tabloid format, but our news coverage is tabloid oriented. So we are this publication that is out there, it has a feel for the street, and it has a feel for the young people. Our staff is very, very young.
You go to a lot of newsrooms and a bunch of old guys like me are sitting around. That’s not the case at Apple Daily. It’s a lot of very young people who used to teach me quite a bit.
Mr. Jekielek: I wanted to touch on one thing. You mentioned that there are actually charges against you, were you to go back to Hong Kong. Presumably, these are under the national security law?
Mr. Simon: Yes, they’re under the national security law. A lawyer made a joke. He said, “We can’t decide whether you’re MBS, because on all the search warrants, it’s like MHS, MHS, MHS. We can’t decide whether you’re like MBS, the guy from Saudi Arabia, or decide whether you’re an El Salvadorian gang like MHS.” If your name’s on all the search warrants and everybody else involved with the search warrants is arrested, then you have charges against you.
It’s been confirmed that I do have these charges through different channels. With the national security law, there’ll probably be one or two because I was at the same demonstrations as everybody else, actually in the background a little bit. I didn’t really do too much public stuff in the past. Then there is also the criminal fraud cases and the lease case and all the other wonderful things that they have charged.
In other words, I was essentially the number two in the business sense. Not a number two overall, but number two in the business sense. I always say, “A lot of these guys, especially on the business side who’ve been charged with things, they probably should talk to Mark Simon.” But I’m over here, I’m safe. I think we have to really look at it that way. I don’t stay up at night worrying that the PLA extradition squad is going to come and see me. I’m not too worried about that.
I do get some nasty phone calls every once in a while, mostly United Front stuff I’m sure. I’m not a difficult guy to get a hold of. I make myself very accessible, because I have a belief that in business, if you want to hear things, you have to let people reach out to you. So it’s pretty easy to get a hold of me, although I’m off Twitter now, which is a very refreshing thing,
Mr. Jekielek: Mark, you mentioned United Front stuff and a lot of the viewers of this show might be familiar with the United Front by now. But I’d like you to just briefly tell me what it is and how it did impact Apple Daily, its operations and its news dissemination.
Mr. Simon: Well, the United Front in Hong Kong has been there forever. The United Front in Hong Kong has been there since the Brits have been there. CY Leung is the former chief executive and it seems like he wants to be the next chief executive again. CY was a member of the United Front. I think he’d gladly tell you that back in the day. And it was basically the Communist Party’s representatives in Hong Kong.
They were members of a few trade unions, pro-government trade unions. They weren’t really too involved with the business community because the tycoons liked to make money and United Front was very second-tier, to be perfectly honest with you. In other words, it was not a major issue. And also it has a lot to do, and I know this sounds really odd, it has a lot to do with domestic politics in Hong Kong right now.
In Hong Kong now, the United Front would be like part of the DAB, a local political party. They could be in some of the local associations. But historically they were not, in my mind, and people could correct me maybe, I don’t think they were a huge influence. The reason why was Beijing has been in Hong Kong since 1997 and even before that a little bit.
So if you wanted to know what they thought, you could just go down to Sai Wan and ask them. And in fact for a number of years, I was invited to coffee at those places around there and we’d have conversations about why Apple Daily is so awful. They weren’t too bad guys, they were doing their job, telling you why, they went to Beijing once or twice to get politely talked to. But those were different times. It was completely, completely different.
I know that sounds odd to people, but I wouldn’t say we had a working relationship, certainly not. But most of them always understood that if you had something to say, they’ll talk to you. But it really changed with the new guy coming in, Xi Jinping coming in. It was a huge and massive change for everybody. And I’d have to say, I have no contacts left whatsoever.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. It’s very interesting to hear that because typically people imagine the United Front to be like how it operates in the U.S. and Canada. It’s first of all attempting to co-opt the Chinese communities in these countries to basically follow Beijing’s line. And then also to further influence the rest of society to follow.
Mr. Simon: Well, they do it. They really do it. But the point is, in Hong Kong, all the major publications and the television stations are owned by pro-Beijing businessmen. So the idea that they have to sit back in the shadows, they really don’t have to do that. They’re right there in front of everybody.
When you watch some of these shows on TVB, which is the big local station, when they do some of their shows, up in the front row are like 14 PLA officers. The poor guys look miserable. They look like they’re not having a very good time, because the whole show is in Cantonese and most of them probably don’t even speak it.
So it is one of these things where the power structure in Hong Kong is such that, really since 1997, I’m not so sure they need it. I’ll give you another story how 1997 has changed things. I used to coach Little League Baseball and we used to have games and the little kid rugby league at Stanley Fort, which is on Hong Kong island. Stanley Fort is the old British compound. Well, the mainland Chinese military is there now.
But it was up until 2012 that they would let us use facilities there. They would let cross country teams run through there. You’d wave to them and the guys would talk to you. In other words, there was not this hostile relationship with the community, because everybody kind of knew that.
Even the way they moved troops around changed. For example, you’d never see troops moving around at 4:00 PM in the afternoon on a Tuesday or Thursday. It would always be Sunday morning at 4:00 AM when they moved troops around.
The main reason they did that was to not freak people out, not to spook people. So there was this—I wouldn’t say a desire to be good guys about it—but I think what you have to remember is they have Hong Kong.
People always would say to me, “Well, in Hong Kong, how are you going to rise up?” And I’m going like, “Well, let me see. They have 7,000 troops in Hong Kong,” or something depending on whatever it is that week. “And they have the tanks, and they’re in all the major garrisons.”
So the idea that they didn’t have the town was ridiculous. Also, that was one of their main lines too. That was their political line. If you see how the CCP works, “Everything’s fine here, we’ve got it under control.”
That’s why in 2003 we had the first massive march of close to a million people. I won’t even say it was a march, it was just a lot of people showed up because they were so upset about what was in Article 23, the first attempt at national security.
You know they had all these people show up and I think they were shocked, because they thought they had it under control. So then they came down, they did the revision, and they got rid of CH Tung, who was then the chief executive.
They put in Sir Donald [Tsang] who was, ironically, the former chief secretary under the Brits. He became the chief executive in one of the great political moves I’ve always considered. Imagine you’re working for the British and then three years later, four years later, you’re now working for the communists, running the town.
Under Donald, it was pretty calm, I would have to say. We used to actually make jokes at the newspaper that Donald knew how to defuse a situation, he knew how to keep things calm.
But we started to have blow-ups and some other issues. But they never really, in my mind, they never really felt that they had control problems in the town until 2012. And that was when we had the national education. They tried to push that through, which was really a boneheaded move.
Students were one thing, but they took on the families and the mothers. Nobody wants that type of propaganda in their kid’s school. It’s a waste of the kids’ time, especially in a society that takes education so very seriously.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s just extremely fascinating, a little window into the past. Mark, you were talking about the journalists, that they tend to be on the younger side than most newsrooms. It just struck me that there are about 1,000 of them? I don’t know how many staff you have, but they all seem to be out of a job.
Mr. Simon: Editorial and editorial production, I would call them journalists. Some guy might be a platform director. In the digital age, everybody’s got a different title now. But in my mind, if you’re creating content, you’re a journalist in a news organization. It’s about 600, 700. Then you’ve got another few hundred. So yes, it’s going to be close to 1,000 people who are out of work.
Mr. Jekielek: What are their job prospects?
Mr. Simon: In the news business, probably not very good. Look, if you’re a crime reporter, you can probably flip. If you’re one of our food editors, where we had a very popular food section, yes, you can probably make a switch to the digital or some other area.
We paid pretty well and it was a lot of fun to work there. So I don’t know what you’re going to do. The political people, they’re going to have a really tough time, and that’s hundreds.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to dig into the human cost of this because obviously Apple Daily was a Hong Kong fixture. We’ve already described that in a number of ways today. What are people telling you in response? It’s been a few days since, as you describe, it was murdered. What are people saying to you? How has the landscape changed?
Mr. Simon: I’ll give you two stories. First is a friend of mine, a wonderful woman, very, very accomplished, a mother of two. A few months back, maybe four months back, her father passed away. She’s a Hong Kong woman, and she called me. We’re good friends and she said, “Oh Mark, you know,” and I think a lot of people can relate to this, “You know, when my dad died,” because he was a larger than life figure, a very nice guy. She goes, “When my dad died,” she said, “I felt a little bit less safe, because dad’s not there anymore. He’s the protector, and is not there anymore.”
She called me when she knew Apple Daily was closing and she said, “I have the same feeling as when my dad died. Not as much, but I have the same feeling, because you’re not there. In other words, you’re not going to be there.”
Look, the Brits left Hong Kong with three things. They left Hong Kong with a full bank account. In fairness to them, they did not strip the money out, they left them with hundreds of billions of Hong Kong dollars, which is over 100 billion U.S.
They left us, of course, with the rule of law. The rule of law is just everything in a financial system, in a financial city, and in any society. But they also left us with another thing too. When the British left, for the first time in the history of China, even in Taiwan, a Chinese city didn’t have to worry about the knock at the door in the middle of the night. In other words, it was a safe place, and that means a lot.
I’ve had the knock at my door a couple of times, not in the middle of the night, they used to always manage to come at like 6:30 am when my wife was getting the kids ready for school. But that’s a big thing, and when you don’t have that anymore, the city feels like a little less safe.
And what I would say is, in the last couple of days, a lot of people don’t communicate with me. In other words, the communications that I get are through Signal, through WhatsApp, and through other things.
It can be dangerous for some people. But I do hear from people and I’ve probably heard from maybe seven people in the last day. They said, “I got up this morning, I didn’t have anything to read. I don’t know what’s going on.” And that’s the shocking thing.
Imagining getting up in the morning and not knowing that there’s somebody there who’s going to tell you the truth. You have to understand, and I’m not saying it’s just Apple Daily, it’s just been a steady dissemination. There used to be the Ming Pao. Ming Pao used to be a very reputable paper, and they still try. But forget it, they’re owned by a pro-China businessman. They’ll toe the line.
Then you’ve got the South China Morning Post. South China Morning Post used to be an okay paper. They still try. There’s people there that still try to do good work, but with us not there, Joe Tsai will pull them further down the rabbit hole of China Daily.
Then you’ve got the Oriental Daily News. You’ve got the other ones, and they’re all owned by pro-government. Other than a publication like Epoch Times or The Stand or the Hong Kong Free Press or HKCE and smaller publications, they’re really the only thing left.
The problem you have there is that we’ve been spending millions of U.S. dollars, millions on legal fees to defend Apple Daily over the last few years. They don’t have that. In other words, they could be taken out fairly quickly with legal actions, and with police actions.
It can become a very nasty spot very quickly for the smaller ones. So people are worried. They don’t have much to read. It will be interesting to see what’s going to happen. As I said before, remember that thing I use where we’re 100 yards up on the hill and everybody else can be at 90 yards, could be 10 yards below us.
Now everybody is down at the five-yard line. Anybody who pops up above the 10-yard line might get a visit from our new police chief, Mr. Siu, who just decided, “We’re going to have to have a law against fake news.”
Do you really want the CCP defining what fake news is or what the news is? They seem to be comfortable with the concept that they can somehow handle it. I don’t think the community is comfortable with it and I think the financial community is going to be even more uncomfortable with it over time.
Mr. Jekielek: Again, a lot of the viewers of this program might say, “Who gets to decide what news is? Why don’t we decide?”
Mr. Simon: I agree with you. I’m one of those guys. I spend most of my time in Taiwan. Hong Kong, I consider my home, I really do consider Hong Kong to be my home. Not any more, it’s not going to be my home again until we have bigger changes. And maybe even then it won’t ever be my home.
But yes, the Hong Kong is a Western society. It is a Western society in every way. I’ve been there a long time. I was there before 1997 and most people would get upset with the Brits, because the Brits weren’t giving them what they wanted, so you’d have a lot of people who were very pro-China.
They were saying they would be better off under China and would get more rights and all these things. And I’d say within a year, by 1998, it was the most British town I’ve ever seen. In other words, people were quite into Western civilization. Look, when you get to the old guard of Hong Kong, I used to always joke, they’re just a bunch of British school boys. When you go back and you see these guys, there’s a strong religious base there, and there’s incredible religious freedom there.
I was incredibly disappointed to read today that they’ve canceled some LGBT films and that’s a bad sign. That’s a really, really bad sign because that means they’re going into all parts of civil society to eliminate what they don’t like. Look, there no gay pride day in Beijing, let’s face it. You know what I’m saying?
The CCP has a long history of persecution of the LGBT community and a long history of persecution of religious communities. We’re seeing that with the churches already, the Catholic church is under tremendous pressure.
Zen is still fighting, Cardinal Zen is still out there fighting every day. But the fact of the matter is they’ve basically neutered the Catholic church. The Social Justice Commission has been completely gutted, in my mind.
Mr. Jekielek: Cardinal Zen has been on the show here, an amazingly diplomatic man given everything we’ve learned about what’s happened there. Basically what you’re talking about, Mark, is the end of press freedom. You’re describing, “Murder of the Apple Daily,” as effectively the end of press freedom in Hong Kong.
Mr. Simon: I wouldn’t be so bold to say we’re the only people holding the line. But if you take out the main fort, you know what I’m saying? Now it’s just a mopping up action for them. In other words, if you take out Apple Daily, it’s just mopping up.
The question is going to be, when are they going to start going after the international press? When are they going to restrict The Wall Street Journal, and restrict the New York Times? If you don’t have a visa, you can’t come back in. I wonder if we’ll start to see that.
Are there going to be conversations that everybody has to be like CNBC, who I’m very critical of in Hong Kong? In other words, just do nothing but business news and then run clips of the government saying nice things about Hong Kong to try to keep your events business going or whatever they’re doing.
In other words, we’ll see what happens. I think there’s a couple of news organizations there that have done wonderful work, the Epoch Times and some other guys included. I don’t think they’re going to really tolerate you guys, tolerate that much longer. Why would they? They don’t have any incentive to.
Mr. Jekielek: You got to do what you got to do, I suppose.
Mr. Simon: The thing is I’m sitting here in New Jersey. I would always tell somebody it doesn’t help to be a martyr. But by the same token, there’s an old saying in Hong Kong from our former governor, Chris Patten, “If someone’s going to come out and knock out your windows, and tell you they’re coming by to knock your windows out on Friday, you don’t walk over Tuesday afternoon and knock your own windows out. They’re going to knock them out. If they’re going to knock them out, you might as well let them do it.”
And that was the thing with Apple Daily. If they’re going to close us, we’re going to make them close us. And that’s what we did, and they closed us. It was impossible to keep going. You couldn’t do anything. The team couldn’t do anything and there was this growing threat of arrest, which we did see with one of our editorial writers. We’ve had other people leave. There have been other people who’ve left, who I’m sure if they had stayed, would have been arrested by now.
Mr. Jekielek: There is this operation that you were describing in Taiwan, where you’ve spent some time. Is the Apple Daily going to survive there? And what about the archives and the rich legacy of the paper?
Mr. Simon: The archives are still intact. One of the things that’s been happening is we can’t control a lot of people who were downloading for days and weeks. The system is a digital system. We’ve been in the digital domain since 2006 and most people have a lot of things.
I have actually had a conversation with somebody in Eastern Europe and they were able to reconstruct everything. Our system is fine. We use an international system up in the cloud, all that good stuff.
I think we’ll be fine and I think that that’ll be it. I do know that was one of their many frustrations the first time they raided us. They didn’t really understand our system in August 2020 when they raided us.
They came in and it’s the day that I say, the women in the bathroom saved us. That’s my thing because what happened is they didn’t bring enough female police officers with them. They were uploading and filming, but the female journalists were doing it from the bathrooms and cubby holes and everything else.
But the male police officers wouldn’t go into the bathrooms. They didn’t make that mistake the second time they came. So that’s the thing. It’s one of the things that I think your viewers and a lot of people don’t understand.
The thing about tyrants is they don’t have to be first-rate. In other words, you’re always amazed when you deal with them at really how second-rate they are. It’s just amazing.
But the fact is they’ve got power, so guess what? They get multiple bites of the apple. There’s no such thing as three strikes and you’re out when the tyrants are running the society. They get multiple swings.
Mr. Jekielek: Mark, tell me about your Taiwan operation and is this where the Apple Daily indeed is going to survive?
Mr. Simon: Well, we’ll see…this is just public knowledge. It’s well known that we made a massive cut there. Recently we stopped the print edition. It’s no secret that the Taiwan operation loses money, so the team in Taiwan will do what they can do. They’re somewhat cut off from Hong Kong now. They’ll just try to survive and do what they do. You just don’t know. In other words, you’ll have to see, it’s up in the air.
I haven’t seen it yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Beijing tries to influence that, which will be really something for the international community to see.
They’re not shy. I have friends in Chinese newspapers in Malaysia, I have friends in Chinese newspapers in Australia who make it very clear to me that if Beijing doesn’t like something they see in the paper, they hear about it from the consulate or the embassy very quickly.
Unfortunately, with the exception of a few, most overseas Chinese publications are actually controlled by Beijing. That’s just a fact. That’s something that’s completely uncontroversial.
Mr. Jekielek: That has certainly been our observation as well.
Mr. Simon: Oh yes, you guys should know that.
Mr. Jekielek: Mark, what is the future here for Hong Kong and for a society that’s been bereft to a much greater extent of the freedom of the press?
Mr. Simon: Freedom of the press is not an abstract principle. It is not something that is just there and we go, “Oh, we’re going to have a journalism awards this week and we’re writing something about this person and that person.” Freedom of the press underpins everything in a free society.
If you can’t have a free and open exchange of ideas on a mass scale—not coffee rooms, not coffee houses, I’m sorry, not small places—on a mass scale, then there can’t be a free exchange of ideas. Then society itself really comes to a halt because there’s not an exchange of information.
If you don’t exchange information, you can’t make the corrections the society needs. That’s why democracies can correct very quickly, “Okay, we’re going off kilter here, what’s happening?” But you don’t know you’re off kilter if you don’t have a free and open press.
For Hong Kong, it’s even more important because Hong Kong is a financial center and without information, finance and trade doesn’t work. You have to know what’s going on in the world, you have to understand what other people are doing.
The only way you get a full range of that information is through a free and open press. You can not just have the Goldman Sachs analyst team sitting there, you have to know things.
I’ll give you an example. With Apple Daily, really one of the reasons that we were really hated was our business page. Our business page was somewhat of a scandal sheet. In fact, most of our lawsuits, and they were very expensive, we didn’t lose many, were from the business community. We’d say something about this company, we’d say something about this executive.
We’d say all these people have come to us and said, “Hey, this company is no good. This company is cheating me.” That’s a function that Apple Daily played with relish because people care about that stuff.
But more importantly, in Hong Kong, when you don’t know where the line is in freedom of expression, when a financial community doesn’t know if they’re getting all the information, they can’t take the risk. They can’t place the money. They can’t start the businesses. There’s so much that you can’t do.
Now, unfortunately for the world, the Goldman Sachs, the JPMorgans, the Deutsche Banks, the HSBCs, basically, they’re not concerned about that. They’re just looking for the next percentage they can get on a deal.
My belief is that if you don’t have a free and open press, the investors will soon figure that out and Hong Kong’s problem will be that the advantage that it has because of a free and open press will disappear. Then essentially our markets will become no different than Shanghai, second-rate, second-tier and corrupt.
Mr. Jekielek: Exactly. A number of prominent Hong Kongers have said this on this show and this has certainly been written about extensively. Isn’t this all an example of Beijing killing the golden goose, the conduit through which foreign direct investment comes into China?
Mr. Simon: The problem is they don’t believe they need it any more. Hong Kong is much less than what it used to be in terms of importance, there’s no doubt. You can’t really make the argument that it’s what it was 20 years ago in terms of foreign direct investment. But Hong Kong has a few things that Beijing must have. One example is Shenzhen. Across the border from Hong Kong is one of the world’s great technological centers, and that’s Shenzhen.
In order to keep that center going for a while at least, we don’t know if Xi Jinping understands that, I doubt he does, those people have to have access to information, but they also have to have access to capital. Through Hong Kong, they got the information, the VPNs, the people having the Hong Kong phones. You know what I’m saying? In other words, they got what they needed from Hong Kong for information.
The second thing that they had more importantly, in my mind, was they had the ability to reward these smart entrepreneurs. In other words, the way you get the economic and great things that happen in Silicon Valley is that people want to make money, they want to get listed, they want to do things.
Well, if you have Hong Kong and you’re making the greatest new AI app or AI technology or something like that, and they do have great technology Shenzhen where you want to be able to reward the engineers, reward the people, because you have to attract them—if they can’t get rewarded, they’re not going to come to your company.
So where do you do that? Of course, Hong Kong is your first choice for your market. Now, maybe you go to the U.S. at a later date, but Hong Kong is probably going to be the first place you’re looking. It’s going to also be where you can protect people. In other words, you can protect the IP through Hong Kong.
There are battalions of lawyers, battalions of IPR lawyers that really deal only with Shenzhen and it’s all based on Hong Kong law. Well, if you don’t have the rule of law, and you can’t really have the rule of law if you don’t have a free press, then you’re not going to have what would they hope for. You’re not going to have a free flow of information and a free flow of funds. So they’re going to really hurt themselves in that way. I think the problem is they do not understand this.
In other words, let’s not pretend that they actually understand this. They truly believe that it’s not a problem. We just got the new chief secretary, John Lee, basically a guy who rose up through the ranks as a police officer and working for Beijing. And now he’s your chief secretary?
He’s the guy who’s in charge of not only economic policy alone, but infrastructure policy and setting a lot of regulatory rules for Hong Kong. And his main focus is enforcement of national security law? I’m sorry, you’re not going to get the eggheads from Silicon Valley and the other places back in Shenzhen if they can’t work in Hong Kong the way they want to. And it’s a myth, it’s a giant myth that you don’t need the freedom of information to do that.
Mr. Jekielek: Mark, this is not a pretty picture you’re painting, I have to say. Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Mr. Simon: Actually, Hong Kong will keep surviving for the near future, and maybe for the medium term. There will not be as many people leaving that will decimate the city. But there are a lot of people leaving. We’ll see probably by the end of 2022, maybe 150,000 people, and these are going to be key people leaving.
As long as Hong Kong knows the world is there for them, as long as Hong Kongers can communicate with the outside world, you just can’t kill those ideas. You can’t kill the idea of freedom. You can’t kill the idea of individual achievement. You can’t kill these things.
Although I will tell you, the Chinese Communist Party will do their best because they don’t understand that, they don’t get Hong Kong. There’s a friend of mine, he always says about Hong Kong with the communist Chinese, “It’s like a Stradivarius in the hands of a gorilla when you see the communist Chinese.” It’s a city that really works. It’s calm for the most part, for a long time, it really was.
They’re polite, they’re decent people. Polite is not even the right word. They’re decent. There’s a decency about Hong Kong that’s incredible. They know what the rule of law means, and they know what a free press means. And that’s everything for Hong Kong.
Mr. Jekielek: The last question is, and numerous people have been coming to me asking this kind of question. I’ve seen this echoed in all sorts of publications as well. What can people do to help Hong Kong stay free?
Mr. Simon: You have to make the argument and it’s a tough one to make. You have to make the argument. You don’t have to call for sanctions, you don’t have to do anything. You have to make the argument of what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s true, and what’s not.
Don’t get snowed on things. In other words, when somebody says, “It’s not really a genocide in Xinjiang,” don’t buy into that. When somebody says, “Oh, Hong Kong is just fine.” Don’t be like Andrew Sorkin on CNBC and give Joe Tsai a pass. Object and say, “This is wrong.”
But most importantly, in the U.S., what I would say to people in America is, don’t feel that somehow you have to be constrained in your conversation. Don’t feel that you have to worry about what you’re talking about.
I’ve just been back about a month, not even quite a month, yet I’ve learned one thing that’s really quite disturbing to me. Basically, iif you criticize the Chinese Communist Party for anything, they try to roll out the racism tag on you.
That’s a problem. That’s a real problem. I wrote a column a long time ago that said every problem that overseas Chinese have starts with the Chinese Communist Party. Essentially, right now, for whatever reason, it is in the U.S., in the West, and Canada is just as bad.
Anytime you criticize the Chinese Communist Party, somebody thinks that you’re criticizing the Chinese people. You’re not. My boss is Chinese. The people I work with are Chinese. Everybody in my life I dealt with in Hong Kong for years, for the most part were Chinese.
I wasn’t a member of the Hong Kong club, you know what I’m saying? I wasn’t sitting there, drinking my mint juleps. The simple fact of the matter is, the Chinese people have had their rights taken from them by the CCP. Just don’t deny it.
I don’t know what an individual can do other than that. And that means a lot. Just don’t deny it. If you’re in a meeting and somebody says, “Oh, this and that and everything’s okay,” don’t deny it.
Don’t be LeBron James. Don’t be Cena, the guy who apologized. Don’t be Andrew Sorkin on CNBC if you’re a journalist and give somebody a free pass. That’s it.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Mark Simon, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Simon: Take care.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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