The remnants of Hong Kong’s independent press

This past June, Hong Kong police raided the newsroom of Apple Daily, a widely-read newspaper that has campaigned for democracy and against the Chinese government. They froze millions worth of assets and arrested its senior editors on charges of foreign collusion. Days later, the paper closed. Hong Kong media now resembles that of mainland China, where news outlets act like mouthpieces for the government. 

But even with mainstream media falling under varying degrees of government control, a handful of independent outlets remain that set Hong Kong apart from China, informing the public and covering political changes with a critical eye. Conversations with a dozen media workers at three outlets––Stand News, Citizen News, and HK Feature––revealed complex strategies to stay afloat, difficult political and journalistic calculations, and a determination to see their reporting through. These independent outlets, Ronson Chan, the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, says, “can be uprooted at any moment.” 

Stand News, where Chan is a senior editor, gained most of its 1.7 million Facebook followers while covering the 2019 protests. It received a flood of financial support tied to its past coverage and expanded from around a dozen staffers when it began in 2014 to more than sixty now. It provides a platform for outspoken commentators ousted by their former employers and pursues potentially-fraught stories, including how government officials violated pandemic rules, tracking the cases of protesters convicted in the aftermath of the unrest, or investigations into law enforcement. “While we still can, we tell our stories of Hong Kong, resisting the forgetfulness, remembering Hong Kong’s resilience and preserving our adamantine spirit of freedom,” Stand News wrote in May. 

The same month that Apple Daily closed, it shelved past commentaries and asked most of its directors to resign. It also suspended monthly donations from readers––the outlet has enough money to support itself for up to a year, and its funds can go to waste if the company’s assets are frozen by authorities. It started paying its staff at the beginning of each month, instead of the end, to avoid a situation in which its thousands of employees could lose their severance pay.

Readers fear that the days of Stand News are numbered, but the possibility of an imminent shutdown has only driven its employees to work harder. Chan hands out assignments in the morning, oversees copies in the evening, and appears on talk shows at night. He also drives reporters around to help their investigations. “It is never a question of legality,” he says. “It is not about what we write or report on, it is a matter of when they want to arrest us and what’s the give and take for the regime.” 

Across the city, Citizen News, a digital newsroom founded by a group of veteran journalists in 2017, has become, in the words of its reporters, “a refugee camp.” Some of the city’s sharpest journalists quietly joined the outlet for its editorial independence, while hiding their bylines to avoid unwanted attention. Citizen News has taken on journalists from Apple Daily and the neutered public broadcaster RTHK, and the entire China desk from a TV network, i-Cable. This summer, it hired twenty-four interns, almost doubling its headcount, and launched a fundraising campaign to support the expense. 

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Citizen News first set out to produce deep dives and features that would combat content farms and self-censorship in the local media landscape. Now, as mainstream publications fall in line with the regime, it’s also stepping up its daily news operation. “We won’t naively think there’s no risk, but we also won’t go to work thinking about it everyday,” says Daisy Li, the founder and editor. “It’s pointless to deliberate over the red lines, as they are constantly moving.”

As the crackdown shook up the industry, Citizen News stretched its financial resources to accommodate new staff, trusting that Hong Kong readers would subscribe. “Hong Kong people learned a painful lesson from the social movement that they could no longer rely on the government or even their votes,” Li says. “They have to find their own ways to preserve and sustain what they treasure.”  

The number of subscribers has doubled as readers look for alternatives in the absence of Apple Daily. The outlet’s China desk reproduces their half-hour newscast and broadcasts it on YouTube, where it has cultivated a steady following. But without the means to support a local bureau in Beijing or Guangzhou, it is unable to report from the ground. Instead it takes advantage of their unique position to follow up on leads that authorities ban its Chinese counterparts from pursuing. 

HK Feature, a small outlet even by the standards of independent media, has only six hundred subscribers and three full-time reporters. But by leveraging its network of citizen journalists and freelancers, it expanded its coverage.

Its founder, Kwan Chun-hoi, who was formerly an investigative journalist at Apple Daily, is worried about a piece of national security legislation, Article 23, which Hong Kong’s chief secretary has vowed to implement as soon as possible. It spells doom for the press, says Kwan, as news content could potentially be framed as incitement.

So unlike others who embrace the uncertainties, Kwan actively tries to manage the risks and outsmart the authorities. He does not stop reporters from pursuing stories that are deemed politically sensitive, but he places them behind the paywall to limit their circulation. Instead of expanding their operation, he chooses to keep a low profile. “So whatever happens to me,” says Kwan, “others can still keep going.”

The veteran journalist ploughed more than $77,000, the bulk of his life-savings, into HK Feature at the height of the protests in July 2019 with an ambitious goal in mind: not only is it a platform for experienced reporters to publish their work, it would also prepare citizen journalists to support the future of the industry.

HK Feature works with about two dozen citizen journalists, including students and photographers. Kwan teaches an intensive course in journalism and provides a platform to publish their works.

Kwan doesn’t keep up the pretense that the media can function how it used to. “We used to proclaim ourselves as the fourth estate, monitoring the government,” he says. “I dare not say that now.” Just last month, he was forced to drop an investigative story after the Hong Kong administration cracked down on journalistic access to vital reporting tools.

Kwan prioritizes preserving testimonies of the changes in Hong Kong over making an immediate impact. He disseminates articles in the form of PDF documents, or translating them into other languages and publishing abroad–– anything to avoid surveillance and put their work out of the reach of the authorities.

He wonders sometimes if he has been too idealistic. But he feels encouraged to see more people take up the responsibility of documenting newsworthy events, from high school teachers writing about the trial of their own students to residents exposing corruption in their communities. “No one will speak out for you anymore,” he says. “It is up to you to stand up for yourself.” 

On the HK Feature website, links to digital wallets are next to writers’ bylines, allowing readers to fund them directly. Their revenue cannot fully cover the minimum expense of their news operation, so they rent out their office for exhibitions and screenings. When social distancing measures took out that option, they collaborated with local farms to sell fresh produce.

“It is no longer possible to make a living solely through reporting,” Kwan says. “To carry on, journalism can only be part of your life, but not your livelihood.” 

Kathy Wong is one of three full-time reporters at HK Feature, who all came onboard fresh out of school. Just two years into her career, she can hardly see a future in the cratering industry and is exploring other alternatives that would enable her to report as a side hustle. “We need to redefine journalists. How can I have my own profession that will allow me to keep reporting and not become out of touch with society? I am still searching for a path that will allow me to go further,” Wong says.

The bleak forecast may be the reality for now, but it is only temporary, Kwan reminds me.  “Regimes rise and fall,” he says, pointing to the press in Taiwan and South Korea which survived authoritarian rule, “just as democracies have good days and bad ones.”

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Rachel Cheung is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, World Politics Review and the Washington Post.

TOP IMAGE: LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2021/09/14: A protester seen reading the last edition of the pro-democratic newspaper from Apple Daily Hong Kong during the demonstration. Protesters from the London Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hongkongers communities gathered outside the proposed relocation site of the Chinese Embassy in London to oppose the plan. In March 2021, the local councilors have drafted a plan to rename the streets around the Royal Mint Court to Hong Kong Square, Tibet Hill and Uyghur Court in recognition of these communities and their struggles for freedom and democracy. (Photo by Hesther Ng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)