Apple Daily’s demise is another blow to Hong Kong’s battered reputation

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Hong Kong authorities tried to distance the newspaper’s shutdown from what they called “normal journalism” and claimed the insurgent, pro-democracy publication posed a threat to national security.

Beijing responded Friday that Biden’s comments were “baseless” and urged the United States not to interfere in China’s “domestic affairs”.

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The move was “a shot across the bow and a reminder of the ambiguity of national security law,” said Tara Joseph, president of the US Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. The law bans any activity Beijing considers sedition, secession and subversion, and allows Chinese state security to operate in the territory.

“It’s not just the shutdown of Apple Daily,” she told CNN Business. “It is the new normal and the change that Hong Kong is going through from its era as a post-British colony to an era where it has increasingly become a part of China.”

The government has reversed those concerns. Asked for comment, a representative of Hong Kong’s Trade Minister Edward Yau referred CNN Business to previous remarks by the town’s leader, Carrie Lam.

“Try not to accuse the Hong Kong authorities of using the national security law as a tool to suppress the media or stifle freedom of expression,” Lam said at a news conference on Tuesday.

A sensitive time

Hong Kong has been a crucial hub for foreign companies looking to partner with China for decades. While Beijing largely regulates how foreign companies do business on the mainland, Hong Kong allowed them to operate without severe restrictions on investment and other operations.

Media organizations have traditionally had more freedom in Hong Kong than on the mainland, where Beijing’s state-run publications are ubiquitous and where foreign outlets have strict rules for hiring journalists.
Technology companies are also confronted with major roadblocks in mainland China, with companies like Google actually completely out of it.
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But Beijing has been aggressively trying to bring Hong Kong into line since 2019, when mass pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in the city. The National Security Act was the most obvious symbol of that tightening, raising questions about the city’s future as an international business center — especially for media or technology companies dealing with delicate or controversial information.

“If you have sensitive data and if you don’t want Hong Kong police to be at your door sooner or later, get your sensitive data out of Hong Kong,” said Stefan Schmierer, managing partner at Ravenscroft & Schmierer, a Hong Kong-based law firm that advises international companies.

Some companies have already reduced their presence in Hong Kong due to the political unrest. Last Summer, The New York Times moved its digital news operation for Asia from Hong Kong to Seoul, citing the potential impact of the security law. Investment advice website colorful fool and TikTok too pulled out.
Big Tech players have also voiced their concerns. last July, Facebook (FB), google (GOOGL) and Twitter (TWTR) said that they would pause the review of city government user data requests.
Companies now 'more concerned' about Hong Kong's security law

Facebook, Twitter and Google confirmed on Friday that there had been no change in their stance.

Self-censorship has also become more apparent. Last year, the German Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong wanted to organize a seminar on national security legislation, but could not find any law firms willing to participate, Schmierer said. The room did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kevin Lai, chief economist for Asia excluding Japan at Daiwa Capital Markets, said he had also noticed a shift among fellow analysts and economists, adding that many are “quieter than before.”

“Maybe there is self-censorship,” he said.

Safety for some, discomfort for others

Schmierer said he did not expect the mounting repression to affect everyone, adding that “it is not that Beijing will destroy Hong Kong’s affairs.”

“If you buy some machines in China and sell them to the United States, what’s the problem with? [the] national security law?” he added.

Frederik Gollob, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, echoed that sentiment.

While “in some sectors it has become more political … I don’t believe you can say this for all industries and sectors,” he said.

Yet the general unease was not limited to media and technology. In the past few months a feeling of unease has fallen over the city, with various institutions coming into the limelight.

last Dec, HSBC (HBCYF) came under fire after Hong Kong police frozen the bank accounts of former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui and his family after Hui announced he would be going into exile.

Police alleged that Hui embezzled money raised through a crowdfunding campaign and alleged that he violated national security law by collaborating with foreign powers to undermine national security.

HSBC said at the time it must “abide by the laws of the jurisdiction in which we operate”.

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But the incident sparked a furore among foreign politicians and HSBC CEO Noel Quinn was subpoenaed to appear before UK lawmakers for interrogation in January.

The bank continued to experience tension in Hong Kong’s largest market. For example, the bank this week had to apologize to customers in the city after confusion over a reported change to the terms of service.

A message posted by the lender, who has: revised since, stated it “may not be authorized” to allow Hong Kong customers to access online or mobile banking outside of the city, sparking public outcry over how that would restrict customers and damage its status as an international financial center.

HSBC later clarified that there was “no plan for any changes to the services”.

“HSBC Hong Kong customers can continue to access banking services through online banking and outdoor mobile banking [the city]’ said a statement. “We apologize for the inconvenience caused.”

The perfect storm’

In some ways, “we’ve had a perfect storm for the past few years,” said Joseph, AmCham’s president.

Schmierer said Hong Kong has suffered a “triple blow” of trouble, from the historic mass protests in 2019 to the corona pandemic and now arguing over national security law.
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The government has also faced increasing criticism of the city’s largely closed borders and strict quarantine rules, which have made international travel nearly impossible for many people.

According to Gollob, this has increased the fear of a “brain drain”.

“I am concerned about companies and people leaving in greater numbers and unlikely to return due to the inability to move freely,” he said.

In some communities, the question has become more urgent. More than 40% of expatriates surveyed by the US Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said they were considering moving out of the city, the group said. said last month.

Gollob said he was more concerned about the city’s reopening than about political tensions.

“In some areas of business [the mood] is certainly almost desperate,” he said.

“We have a big job ahead of us to restore Hong Kong’s image to where we think it should be, and that’s, I think, a pretty tough job to do at the moment.”

— Eric Cheung, Jadyn Sham, Nikita Koirala, Jenni Marsh and CNN’s Beijing office contributed to this report.

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