Security Brief: PACOM Week of June 21, 2021
Week of Monday, June 21, 2021 | Issue 19
Antonia Gough, PACOM Team
Apple Daily staff working on the newspaper’s final issue
Date: June 23, 2021
Location: Hong Kong, China
Parties involved: Next Digital newspaper; Apple Daily newspaper; China
The event: On Wednesday, June 23, Apple Daily announced its closure. Following the freeing of assets, and a raid and arrests during the previous week, the paper’s parent company, Next Digital, announced that it was not viable for the publication to continue. The day the closure was announced, police arrested an Apple Daily journalist. Fear for staff’s safety was the final motivation for the publication to shut down. The paper’s online platform has also ceased operations.
Apple Daily’s ceasing of operations signifies a big blow to the Hong Kong media landscape and to citizens’ freedom to express themselves. Now more than ever, there will be fear about addressing certain topics and higher levels of self-censorship amongst citizens and journalists. Apple Daily was one of the most well-funded, free and critical publications left in the city. The shrinking list of printed media platforms in Hong Kong that criticize, confront, and investigate the Chinese government has lost its most powerful, established member. The diversity of the media landscape has drastically been reduced with this closure.
So far, the government has upheld that freedom of the press exists but is not absolute. Both Chief Executive Lam and Secretary of Security Lee have framed Apple Daily’s motivations and actions as criminally related rather than being matters of press freedom. The closure is even more concerning given that no individuals linked to Apple Daily have yet been put on trial or found guilty of anything. The timing of the journalist arrest, which followed the large raid, makes it appear that the government’s tactic was to apply continued and consistent pressure.
The closure of the newspaper, marked by large numbers of people buying the final copy in a peaceful but pointed protest, indicates the strength of sentiment against both local and central government that is unlikely to dissipate in the medium-term at least. Foreign countries such as the US, UK and EU member states, acting in unison in many cases, can be expected to respond with further condemnation of the Hong Kong and Chinese government over the Apple Daily closure. Foreign countries will also be likely to begin assessing other available measures to reinforce their opposition to the steady erosion of long-established rights and the primacy of an independent legal system in the Hong Kong territory.
There is a slight possibility that further US sanctions may be placed on Hong Kong officials responsible for the asset freeze and subsequent closure, as a number of foreign banks were implicated in the forced asset freeze by the government. However, Biden has made no move to do this despite condemning the paper’s termination. Additional clampdowns on other media outlets in the future are highly likely. A number of critical publications still remain that are liable to being silenced. Another result of the press clampdown has been the accelerated growth of many online media platforms. Although internet censorship in Hong Kong is currently not employed at the level experienced in China, an increase in this is a concrete risk if the current trajectory in silencing opposing voices continues. Whether other newspapers will ever be as provocative or critical as Apple Daily was will become increasingly unlikely.
Date: June 24, 2021
Parties involved: China; Australia; World Trade Organisation (WTO)
The event: On June 24, 2021, China confirmed it had lodged a complaint against Australia at the WTO for its anti-dumping and anti-subsidy tariffs on imports of Chinese railway wheels, wind towers, and stainless steel sink products. The move came after Australia last week contested anti-dumping duties that China had imposed on Australian wine exports. Australia had earlier also complained about anti-dumping and countervailing duties on its barley exports. Australia’s trade minister Dan Tehan said Canberra was surprised by Beijing’s complaint, as there had been no prior notification of China’s concerns. Tehan also questioned why Beijing had taken so long to lodge its complaint, given that duties were imposed between 2014 and 2019.
China’s WTO complaint timing is noteworthy given Beijing and Canberra’s intensifying diplomatic and trade disputes. Beijing has used retaliation against Australia via duties and tariffs since 2020 to serve as a warning to the international community after Australia called for an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Calls for further investigation into the origin of the pandemic and transparency from the Chinese government have grown in recent weeks, with the G7 collectively issuing a statement exerting pressure on Beijing. Tensions are highly likely to increase given that trade disputes very often escalate after the WTO becomes involved. China has also increasingly felt “ganged up” on following statements made in international forums such as the G7, making them more liable than usual to responding abruptly and strongly to any provocation.
China’s latest disagreement against Australia is likely to worsen diplomatic and commercial ties further. Australians’ trust in China has declined to a historic low, and more people view China as a security threat than as an economic partner, as revealed in the annual Lowy Institute Poll revealed on June 22. Businesses with interests in China-Australia trade should assess the impact of worsening relations on strategy and operations.
Date: June 25, 2021
Location: Hong Kong, China
Parties involved: Hong Kong; Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu; Chief of Police Chris Tang Ping-keung; Chief Executive Officer Carrie Lam
The event: On June 25, 2021, China’s government news agency Xinhua and Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post reported that the State Council, the country’s highest executive body, had approved the appointment of two Hong Kong officials linked to the territory’s police service to critical posts in a reshuffle that prioritized security. John Lee Ka-chiu, who had served as security minister, has been promoted to Chief Secretary, while Chief of Police Chris Tang Ping-keung has been appointed into Lee’s previous role of Secretary of Security. Lee, a former police officer, is now the deputy to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam with a portfolio of responsibilities that includes education, welfare, food, health, housing, and transport.
The appointment of two officials drawn from the police service to senior roles highlights Beijing’s prioritizing national security over many other considerations in Hong Kong. Lee is the first Chief Secretary to have a background in security and law enforcement. Local and foreign business interests may share this emphasis on national security to some degree while also remaining concerned over its implications regarding overseas and domestic reaction. The prioritization of national security’s impact on Hong Kong’s reputation and utility outside China is likely to be another concern for companies.
Lee’s oversight of education will be a specific concern for many local and foreign staff already uneasy over an increased emphasis on “patriotic” education. The uneasiness over “patriotic” education is reflected in falling school enrolment numbers and a sharp increase in emigration among those able to leave the territory. Tang has already expressed what his priorities will be, and these include pushing through previously failed constitutional reform of Article 23. This amendment would allow the government to essentially suspend the city’s constitution and enact its laws to prevent any acts that would jeopardize national security.
This reshuffle has alarmed many, including Samuel Chu of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, who has argued that these appointments symbolize the completion of Hong Kong’s transformation into a “police state.” Lee and Tang are already under US-imposed sanctions as a result of their central roles in establishing and implementing the national security law. The timing of this reshuffle is no coincidence, coming a matter of days after the closure of one of the city’s most critical newspapers. Tang, who will now have the role of Security Minister, spearheaded the large raid that began the rapid demise of Apple Daily. Such a connection demonstrates the interconnectedness of the relatively small network of top elites who are now running the Hong Kong government under the national security law. This concentration of power and close collaboration is likely to further facilitate an accelerated pace of change in levels of freedom in the city.