For Stanley Lai, driving a cab is a lot like being a breaking news photographer. Both jobs require overnight work, skilled driving, and a good sense of direction navigating Hong Kong’s disorienting urban space. The biggest difference is speed. He used to hit 180 km/h (112 mph) in a company Toyota Corolla speeding to the scene for the best shots. Now he follows the traffic rules—being a few seconds slower wouldn’t matter to his passengers as much as it would to his newspaper’s readers.
Following three decades of being a photojournalist, Lai was forced to make a career change at the age of 53. Last summer, police raided the newsroom of Apple Daily, Lai’s employer and Hong Kong’s most popular pro-democracy newspaper, accusing it of endangering national security. The paper was forced to shut and several hundred journalists were laid off.
Some of the reporters found jobs at other news outlets, but Lai chose to become a night-shift taxi driver. “I have always been driving,” he recalled. “It seemed to be the fastest, easiest switch.”
Four months later, Lai has settled well into his new role. On Friday afternoon, he got into a bright red taxi and mounted three smartphones on his dashboard. The first one is for GPS navigation. The second is used as a walkie-talkie. The third is for music. On this day, he turned on WTF, a 2005 Cantonese hip-hop song that derides the government.
“We have a strong opinion/ You won’t listen/ You want me to shut up, but I won’t be fucking silenced,” the lyrics go.
“Good morning,” Lai spoke into the second phone, after welcoming me into the car an hour before sunset. The greeting is an important ritual for cabbies, who would share traffic tips and keep each other company throughout the long night ahead. One of Lai’s chat channels is with four other Apple Daily journalists-turned-cabbies. “Good luck starting today’s work.”
Lai is one of many Hong Kong journalists who were forced to stop reporting over the past few months. As part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent, Chinese authorities have taken aim at a vibrant news industry that, until recently, did not shy away from exposing government wrongdoings, broadcasting opposition voices, and mobilizing the public for political movements.
The city’s most influential independent media have shuttered, some with their assets frozen and top editors put behind bars. Websites went dark. News alerts stopped popping up, and social media accounts with millions of followers vanished.
Front-line journalists who used to shout thorny questions at government officials fell silent. Some left the profession altogether, taking with them decades of experience and, in Lai’s case, stories that are now told in the confines of a cab instead of on the pages of a newspaper.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997 on the promise that it would enjoy civil liberties unavailable in mainland China. A freewheeling media industry thrived under the unique press freedoms and cultivated a group of reporters known for being extremely competitive, aggressive, and defiant in a fierce battle for readership. In an infamous outburst, former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin once quipped that Hong Kong reporters asked “naive” questions but, in their pursuit of stories, ran faster than anyone else.
Unlike in China, where the press is tightly controlled by the state, reporters in Hong Kong frequently made memes that satirize powerful officials, interviewed dissidents, and uncovered scandals implicating the political and business elites.
They were an inconvenience to a Chinese party-state that routinely seeks to erase embarrassing chapters of history and control information, but there was no easy way to shut them up without tarnishing the city’s reputation as a free financial center and China’s window to the world. At the time of the handover, Hong Kong’s economy was more than 18 percent the size of China’s. Today, that figure is less than 2 percent, and a newly confident China has found a way to tame the city’s pesky journalists.
It happened with such brutal efficiency that many reporters have put down their pens and cameras for good. One of them, Chan San-ching, picked up a frying basket instead.
Chan worked as a financial journalist at Apple Daily for 10 years, conducting undercover investigations, probing the finances of Hong Kong billionaires, and producing videos about local startups.
When I first saw him this month, at a compact diner filled with the greasy aroma of fried chicken, the 35-year-old was wearing an apron and busy working the cash register. I waited for a while before Chan found the time to sit down at one of the tables, with clear plastic barriers on the two sides enforcing social distancing.
“There is no point being a journalist anymore.”
Chan recalled crying with his colleagues and greeting supporters on Apple Daily’s last day, in June, when the newspaper printed its last issue after police froze the assets and charged its executives with national security violations. Employees were dismissed without receiving their last month’s salaries or severance pay.
Disappointed by increasing pressure of censorship, Chan decided to shift his focus from telling stories to earning money. “There is no point being a journalist anymore,” Chan said. “Hong Kong is a place to make money, not a place to have a life.”
Chan delivered food for two weeks, later opening the small diner in a bustling residential neighborhood, serving Hong Kong classics like pork knuckles, tomato noodle soup, and milk tea. Its signature dish is a giant fried chicken leg that local food reviewers have praised as “larger than a human face.”
In Hong Kong’s competitive food scene, the place has also earned a special reputation of being run by an ex–Apple Daily newsman. While I was there, some customers told Chan to “add oil”—an expression of solidarity often used by supporters of the city’s pro-democracy movement. I even bumped into another reporter who was working nearby and in need of a snack. “I’m a honggaa,” he told Chan, using the Cantonese word for colleague, before leaving with a chicken leg the size of a small iPad.
The quick demise of news media in Hong Kong is part of Beijing’s crackdown on all sorts of dissent in the city after hundreds of thousands of people joined a protest movement in 2019 calling for democratic reforms and greater autonomy. At the center of China’s response to the unrest was the imposition of a national security law that effectively put the entire political opposition behind bars and drove many activists into exile.
Then the authorities turned their attention to a group of people they saw as fueling the discontent: journalists.
After massive demonstrations broke out in the summer that year, pro-democracy media took up the bulk of the work covering the city’s biggest and most violent social movement in decades. Small, independent online outlets, often run by volunteers, flourished on Facebook and Instagram, providing livestreams of the protests and capturing some of the most influential images showing the police’s use of force against protesters.
While pledging to provide truthful reports, some outlets have also unambiguously sided with the demonstrators. Apple Daily, for instance, had printed protest slogans on its front-page, which protesters often held up at rallies. Their direct challenge to the authorities attracted donations from the public but also made them a thorn in Beijing’s side.
Chinese state media and government officials have accused Hong Kong news media of falsifying reports, aiding protesters, encouraging violence, and inciting hatred toward China.
In December, police raided the newsroom of another popular pro-democracy outlet, Stand News, and arrested its executives on suspicion of publishing seditious content. The digital news outlet, with one million Instagram followers, abruptly shut down. Days later, widely-read news outlet Citizen News also announced its closure, citing the safety of employees.
Many small outlets active in covering the protests, with names like Rice Post, Mad Dog Daily, and White Night, have also disbanded in recent months.
Luwei Rose Luqiu, a communications professor with the Hong Kong Baptist University, said journalists themselves have become a political force in Hong Kong’s social movement, and they were being targeted by the leadership because of that influence. “By targeting specific media outlets, a chilling effect is being created,” she said. “The result is that alternative voices of the mainstream media are disappearing, thus reducing the public’s access to information.”
As Hong Kong entered 2022, the media world is noticeably quieter without some of its most popular Chinese-language publications. By one tally, some 1,115 media workers, or one in five people who worked for Chinese-language outlets in Hong Kong, lost their jobs in the past year.
Some journalists lost jobs several times—sometimes even before they started, as their future employer collapsed before they could set foot in the office. In a way, Lai, the driver, was lucky that he didn’t find a job at another pro-democracy outlet.
A 30-year-old former Apple Daily photographer wasn’t as fortunate. He was supposed to start his new job at Citizen News on Jan. 3, but the outlet announced its closure the evening before to “ensure the safety and well-being” of its employees.
During Apple Daily’s last week, a writer in her late 20s who worked for the paper during the 2019 protests brought an apple cake to the newsroom. At the time, she was working at Stand News, and interviewed her former colleagues to pen an obituary for her old company.
When her new employer suffered the same fate in December, only more abruptly, she found herself without any time or platform to mourn.
“I think when a publication dies, it deserves an obit,” she told me in a cafe. “[Stand News]’s disappearance was so sudden, and I cannot let it go like this without leaving an obit. That’s why I’m sitting here talking to you.”
Harry, a photojournalist who spoke on condition of anonymity due to concerns over legal risks, said he took on whatever gig he could find to make ends meet after losing his job at Apple Daily. He delivered food, collected trash at the beach, waited tables at a cafe, moved furniture, and cleaned air-conditioners.
“I felt like my entire family died when Apple Daily closed.”
In October, Harry was able to return to his old profession with an offer from Stand News. When his new employer was raided, he told me, the pain seemed to be more manageable. “I felt like my entire family died when Apple Daily closed,” the 29-year-old said. “With Stand News, it felt more like breaking up with my girlfriend.”
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said the shutdown of several news outlets did not indicate any loss of press freedom in the city. Beijing’s powerful liaison office in Hong Kong called Stand News a political organization disguised as media and accused it of supporting riots and damaging the rule of law. It also said the sedition case had nothing to do with press freedom.
However, according to a poll by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, 62 percent of people deemed the press and information in Hong Kong “not free” after Stand News and Citizen News announced their closure, and 54 percent of the respondents expected the closures to cause a decline in government accountability.
The crackdown on dissent has shaken even news outlets that had long been regarded as politically moderate.
Fearful of being tripped up by the new national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020, the reputable centrist newspaper Mingpao now appends a disclaimer to its columns and opinion articles that they have “absolutely no intentions to incite hatred, discontent, or hostility against the government or other communities.”
Across the board, editors and reporters are also exercising increasing self-censorship to avoid offending the authorities.
A journalist at a pro-Beijing Chinese news portal told me he and his colleagues had been feeding exclusive information to competitors because their own publication did not want to break news that looked bad for the government. These days they are struggling to find journalists to pass their scoops to, he said. From being the fastest to chase a story, Hong Kong reporters are now running away from it.
Having largely unfettered access to the internet means Hong Kong’s news industry is yet to become the same as mainland China, where independent news outlets do not exist, according to Luqiu, the Baptist University professor. But she noted that Hong Kong’s media system is undergoing a fundamental change, from a libertarian one to an authoritarian one, as private outlets operate under increasing government control.
The change has led to a sense of hopelessness across an industry with such stellar records in setting the agenda for the Chinese-speaking world. Former journalists are conflicted over whether it’s worth carrying on reporting given the lack of stable income, the growing legal risk, and the self-censorship they now have to exercise.
Harry, for example, said he’s been persuading passionate younger journalists to give up their dreams—he did not want to see them jailed. “I used to tell fellow journalists to ‘add oil,’” he told me. “But at this moment everyone should save up some money and find a different job. I wouldn’t say ‘add oil’ any more. I don’t see any oil for us out there.”
But Alvin Chan, a 40-year-old veteran reporter who used to work for Apple Daily, has been publishing news and analysis on his own Facebook page while freelancing for a few other outlets, earning one-tenth of his previous salary. In recent posts, he cited overseas research to challenge a local microbiologist’s suggestion to cull coronavirus-infected hamsters and wear two masks at a time to fend off COVID-19.
He encouraged me to keep on writing but admitted he hadn’t found a sustainable way of doing this job. “It’s good to generate a bit of light in the darkness,” he said. “But running my own shop is not a solution. Obviously I won’t be able to do this forever.”
At the end of our chat, Chan said he wanted to give me a gift and handed me his Apple Daily business card. He called it “limited edition.”
Besides his anti-government playlist, Lai had more subtle political displays inside the vehicle. There was a figurine of a yellow Chinese dancing lion, because “yellow lion” is pronounced the same as “yellow ribbon,” slang for supporters of the stalling pro-democracy movement. There was a mini-poster above my head showing a cartoon pig popular with protesters. And Lai often took orders from a taxi-hailing platform dedicated to the anti-government population.
Passengers who could decipher these signals would have delightful chats with the cabbie. Lai recalled one person excitedly rolling up their sleeve to show a protest tattoo on the upper arm. “Hong Kong people need a place to vent,” he said, adding the fear of being snitched to authorities has kept many people silent. “I’m like a therapist here.”
Lai said he avoided mentioning his past job at Apple Daily to passengers. Once, upon learning of his past, the passengers insisted on paying him a big tip. He did not want that to happen again; he said he doesn’t want anyone’s pity.
Lai recounted his journalism career as he drove me across Hong Kong’s glamorous business district late at night.
He never went to college. In around 1990, Lai entered the media industry—sort of—as a chauffeur for a British chief editor at the English newspaper, the South China Morning Post. In his spare time, he learned developing film in a darkroom from his colleagues and soon took up the camera himself. He joined Apple Daily in 1995, a month after the newspaper was founded, and worked until its last day.
The paper was known for investing lavishly on getting scoops and gossip, a strategy that contributed to its commercial success. This put Lai on the front line of many breaking news stories, including earthquakes, civil unrest, and Hong Kong’s infamous criminal gangs. He showed me old pictures of himself in the United States, France, and North Korea. Before drones went mainstream, the paper once rented a helicopter just for him to take photos of a floating corpse discovered in the ocean.
Lai’s old habits have followed him to his new job. He carries the same heavy backpack, though its heft came from coins and car-wash soap instead of cameras. He keeps himself awake at night by having throat lozenges. He gets dinner from the same takeout place that photojournalists used to patronize. Then, he eats at the same parking spot overlooking Victoria Harbour, where news vans used to park.
We stopped at the Central waterfront, where he posed—gingerly—for photos. He was used to being on the other side of the camera. But having spent the bulk of his adult life as a journalist, he said he doesn’t read or listen to the news anymore. “It’s none of my business now. Listening to news changes nothing,” he said. “Whatever the government says, that’s it then.”
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.
A previous version of this article misstated that a writer in her 20s worked for Apple Daily before the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. She worked for the paper during the unrest. We regret the error.