In a newspaper published in 2013 just after Xi Jinping came to power, the media magnate Yu Pun-hoi in Hong Kong wrote optimistic about how the new Chinese president should take an “unequivocal stand against dictatorship” and ensure “free speech”.
Eight years later, things could not have gone any other way, especially for the once vibrant media in Hong Kong. Yu’s biggest rival, pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, is behind bars and his popular Apple Daily pony newspaper has been closed. Both were high targets of Xi’s curtailment of civil liberties after protests against Hong Kong in 2019.
Yu, 63, a successful entrepreneur who crosses the border between a pro-Beijing loyalist and sometimes criticizes the local government in Hong Kong, suddenly found himself uncomfortably close to the line of fire. With the removal of Apple Daily, its disrespectful website HK01, with its mixed mix of crime and entertainment, is now the city’s most popular news portal.
“The style he presents as a media owner is not like Jimmy Lai,” said Grace Leung, a journalism lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. ‘He’s more like the traditional Chinese[elite businessman]. . . HK01 has tried to position itself as pro-China, but seems at least a little more neutral. “
Hong Kong’s aggressive media is traditionally seen as part of its appeal as a international financial center, able to hold the government accountable in a way that was unthinkable in mainland China.
But since the protests and the introduction of a national security law last year, the government has crushed the press. In addition to arresting Lai, he targeted public broadcaster RTHK, such as prominent journalists fled the city, referring to “white terror”, although the government argues that press freedoms have been preserved. White terror refers to the decades of authoritarian rule in Taiwan when hundreds of opponents were sent to prison. Protesters in Hong Kong used the term to characterize their fear of retaliation after the 2019 protests.
Since its inception in 2016, HK01 has attracted readers by mixing gossip from celebrities and criticism of the local government in Hong Kong with support for the Beijing regime, reflecting the tendencies of independent but ultimately pro-Chinese businessmen who have long been the rule over the City.
But in the wake of the security law, Beijing listens less to the city’s traditional elite, partly blaming them for the protests. In this new Hong Kong, analysts are wondering whether HK01 can continue its ‘loyalist critique’, or whether the tinge of discord that has helped drive the readership will be removed.
Yu erupted on the Hong Kong media scene at the age of 33 in the early 1990s, taking over the Chinese newspaper Mingpao following a failed bid from Rupert Murdoch. He sold the newspaper after a scandal in which the media in Hong Kong revealed that he had been sent to prison for a few months in his youth when he was studying in Canada.
He developed real estate, film and IT businesses in mainland China before launching the HK01 website in 2016.
“We knew our boss had his personal opinions, but he rarely interrupted our coverage,” one employee told the Financial Times, describing this period as the ‘golden age’ of HK01.
Yu’s interest in the media also stems from the desire to influence public policy, analysts said. He is the chairman of academic institutes at Tsinghua and Beijing universities in China and acquired Duowei in 2009, one of the largest political news sites targeting the Chinese diaspora.
‘You’m not really listening to the central government. . . He is a businessman with his own ideas about politics, he is not completely red, ‘said another former editor.
Yu first revealed his dual approach to Beijing while in Mingpao, when one of his reporters was arrested in China in 1993.
But the big test for Yu’s approach comes in 2019 during the protests against the government. Yu, who is now also the editor-in-chief of HK01, is pro-democracy camp, upsets leading reporters who have complained that Democrats refuse to be questioned by them.
“The top management is very established, but some reporters and editors are very pro-democratic, so there is always tension,” said Rose Luqiu, a former Chinese journalist at Hong Kong Baptist University.
The introduction of the national security law has led to even stricter editorial control than the pressure that appeared during the protests, two employees said. “Sometimes our editors will ban our stories. Editors say it’s too sensitive. . . change the angle, ”said a current staff member.
“There is almost no criticism of the central government,” another added.
A senior editor of HK01 rejects the criticism, saying the exhaust valve “never hesitated to dive into” sensitive topics or cover politics before or after the introduction of the safety law.
One person close to the company said it also did not want to be defined by political news. The business model has evolved over the past few years to include e-commerce. “HK01 is not just a media provider, but an internet business,” said the editor.
But for Yu and HK01, it promises to only get harder by walking the loyal chord of ‘loyal criticism’. If the news is considered too pro-Beijing in a city whose residents tend to lean away from the government, HK01 will lose readers.
“And then the advertisers will let you down too,” Luqiu said.
But to become too pro-democratic will attract the contradiction of nationalists. Over the past few months, the site has been targeted by Stanley Ng, a pro-Beijing politician who portrayed HK01 as the same trash can as Apple Daily.
Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong