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The symbolism of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, Jenni Marsh and Caitlin Hu, CNN

Jimmy Lai fled mainland China more than 60 years ago, smuggling himself into Hong Kong on a fishing boat at age 12 to escape the chaos of the Communist Party. This week, Beijing finally caught up with him, after a law it had imposed on Hong Kong last year was used to take down his pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily.

The iconic Hong Kong tabloid Lai founded shuttered Thursday due to an untenable environment in which its journalists had been arrested under the vaguely worded National Security Law and assets had been frozen, parent company Next Media has said. Lai, now in his mid-70s, and five of the paper’s top editors and executives have also been arrested under the sweeping law for alleged collusion with foreign forces, ostensibly over articles they wrote and interviews Lai gave with media outlets calling for sanctions on Hong Kong.

News of Apple Daily’s closure prompted an outpouring of emotion outside its offices Wednesday night, where one longtime Hong Kong journalist tearfully told CNN the closure marked the end of press freedom in the once-autonomous city.

“Apple Daily has always been a symbolic publication for us to show that Hong Kong’s press freedoms still exist,” she told CNN’s Lauren Lau as the crowd clapped and shouted in support of the newspaper. “We don’t agree with all the things they report … but that’s a matter of professional discussion, and I respect many of my peers, journalists, friends. They did a lot of good stories, they always speak out and they are there to ask the most pressing questions. This is why they are now being targeted by the government.”

As CNN’s Jenni Marsh writes, Apple Daily’s tabloid sensibilities drove a paparazzi culture in the city, and at times attracted ire for its reporting methods. But it also tracked the wealth of mainland officials and their families in Hong Kong, and devoted ample resources to holding those in power to account. While other outlets avoided openly criticizing China’s ruling Communist Party, Apple Daily continued poking the bear. When a mass pro-democracy movement erupted in 2019, its front pages urged readers to attend huge marches, and it printed anti-government posters for them to carry.

All that was too much for Beijing on Chinese soil. In June 2020, as pandemic restrictions thwarted the ability of Hong Kongers to protest, China passed the law under which Lai and many pro-democracy politicians and activists have been arrested. Until this week, Apple Daily was the last major voice of the pro-democracy camp still at large.

‘Sad day for media freedom’

US President Joe Biden on Thursday described the Apple Daily closure as “a sad day for media freedom in Hong Kong and around the world.”

“Intensifying repression by Beijing has reached such a level that Apple Daily, a much-needed bastion of independent journalism in Hong Kong, has now ceased publishing. Through arrests, threats, and forcing through a National Security Law that penalizes free speech, Beijing has insisted on wielding its power to suppress independent media and silence dissenting views,” he said in a statement.

“People in Hong Kong have the right to freedom of the press. Instead, Beijing is denying basic liberties and assaulting Hong Kong’s autonomy and democratic institutions and processes, inconsistent with its international obligations. The United States will not waver in our support of people in Hong Kong and all those who stand up for the basic freedoms all people deserve,” he also said.

‘The bedrock foundation of my life’

Joe Biden may be the most publicly devout President since Jimmy Carter.

Every weekend, his motorcade leaves the White House or his home in Delaware for Biden to attend Mass in a Roman Catholic church. When he was in England for the G7 summit, he surprised worshippers by showing up in a local pew. The second Catholic President, after John Kennedy, Biden has said his faith anchors him following a string of personal tragedies, and last year — after then-President Donald Trump claimed Biden’s election would “hurt God” — said that faith was “the bedrock foundation of my life.”

So it must be a personal trial for Biden to know that conservative Catholic bishops in the US are pushing a plan to take away his right to receive Communion, due to his support for abortion rights. Designed to affect all Catholic politicians who support abortion, the doctrinal changes they are advocating will, however, have limited effect — bishops are free to make their own calls in their local dioceses.

Though he personally opposes abortion, Biden says he would not impose his views on women who do not share his religion or on believers of other faiths. Support for a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body is a firmly embedded value in the Democratic coalition. Republicans largely oppose abortion, and the anti-abortion movement is mounting multiple court challenges to abortion rights that may end up in the Supreme Court.

The President has said that the Church’s attitude to Communion is a private matter that he won’t discuss in public. But the American bishops’ proposed policy changes have raised some questions about consistency: The death penalty contradicts Roman Catholic teachings, for example, but there was no movement in the Church to prevent Trump Attorney General William Barr, who follows the faith, from receiving Communion after he ordered the Justice Department to resume federal executions.

Such contradictions explain why more liberal faith groups like Catholics for Choice are condemning the use of Communion as a “weapon of punishment,” and accuse bishops of refusing to wrestle with the complexities of sexuality and reproduction.

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