This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Six former executives of Hong Kong’s now-folded Apple Daily newspaper pleaded guilty on Tuesday to ‘conspiring and colluding with foreign powers’ under a draconian national security law imposed by Beijing in the wake of the 2019 protest movement.
Publisher Cheung Kim-hung, associated publisher Chan Pui-man, editor-in-chief Ryan Law, executive editor-in-chief Lam Man-chung, and columnists Fung Wai-kong and Yeung Ching-kee pleaded guilty to “conspiring” with the paper’s founder Jimmy Lai to call for sanctions on Hong Kong and China in support of the pro-democracy movement.
The pro-democracy Apple Daily and Lai’s Next Digital media company were forced to close in June 2021 after their assets were frozen during a national security police raid on its headquarters in Tseung Kwan O.
Cheung and the other five defendants were arrested in the days and weeks that followed, while Lai is currently in prison serving sentences for fraud and “illegal assembly,” awaiting trial on the same charges as the six executives.
Lai will plead not guilty to ‘colluding with foreign powers’ at a trial to be held before a panel of three national security judges vetted by the government and no jury, that is scheduled to start on Dec. 1.
Prosecutors are also accusing three linked to Next Digital of involvement in the “conspiracy,” which allegedly ran until the day of the paper’s last print edition on June 24, 2021. The companies are expected to plead not guilty alongside Lai.
In May, the city plummeted to 148th on a global press freedom index, as Reporters Without Borders cited the ongoing crackdown on the pro-democracy media that has targeted the Apple Daily, Stand News and Citizen News, among other outlets.
The implementation of the national security law since July 1, 2020 has ushered in a crackdown on pro-democracy media organizations, activists and politicians in Hong Kong, with many former journalists joining the steady stream of people leaving their home to seek a less restricted life elsewhere.
Cheung and the others were convicted by a High Court judge after the prosecution put its case, and will be sentenced after Lai’s trial.
Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kei, who fled to the democratic island of Taiwan as soon as the national security law took effect, said the 2019 protest movement wasn’t the work of the Apple Daily or any media organization, however.
“Hong Kong people didn’t take part in the  Umbrella movement or the  protests at the Apple Daily’s instigation,” Lam told RFA. “It was because [authorities in] mainland China wanted to interfere in the running of Hong Kong.”
‘Politically realistic’ pleas
Meanwhile, independent journalist Lam Yin-bong said the guilty pleas were likely due to a sense of realism about the outcome of their cases.
“They face very serious charges that could result in very long sentences,” Lam Yin-bong told RFA. “It’s politically realistic [to assume] … that they will be convicted, so if they plead not guilty, they would just wind up with a longer sentence.”
“With a guilty plea, they can reduce their sentence by a third and avoid a lengthy trial and high lawyers’ fees,” he said. “These pleas have nothing to do with their relationship to guilt; they really have no choice under the current state of the judicial system in Hong Kong.”
“None of these six high-level executives … went overseas or even communicated with anyone in a foreign country, and yet they are still being charged with collusion with foreign powers, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment,” Lam Yin-bong said.
He said Jimmy Lai, who is being framed as the “ringleader” in the “conspiracy,” is likely to be the chief target of the authorities’ wrath in this case.
“Jimmy Lai is likely to get a very, very severe sentence,” he added.
Another Hong Kong court on Tuesday found nine people were found guilty of “rioting” at a protest on Oct. 1, 2019, while police arrested a man who praised the playing of a 2019 protest anthem instead of the Chinese national anthem at a rugby match in South Korea.
The arrest came after Hong Kong police said its organized crime wing would investigate the matter, to see “whether the incident has breached the National Anthem Ordinance or any other legislation of Hong Kong, including the Hong Kong National Security Law.”
The 42-year-old man was arrested by national security police on suspicion of “acting with seditious intent” after reposting the clip and thanking South Korea for “recognizing Hong Kong’s national anthem,” local media reported.
The man had posted a number of messages of support for the 2019 protests, as well as calling for resistance to pandemic control measures in the city, reports said.
The Hong Kong government has said the song is “closely associated with violent protests and the [Hong Kong] ‘independence’ movement,” although the song calls for freedom and democracy rather than independence.
In 2019, when protesters began defending peaceful demonstrators against riot police firing tear gas, non-lethal bullets and occasionally live ammunition with Molotov cocktails, bricks and other makeshift weapons, Hong Kong fans chanted “Freedom for Hong Kong” and booed the Chinese national anthem at a soccer match in South Korea.
They waved banners that read “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution in our time!” a popular protest slogan that was banned under the national security law, and sang “Glory to Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong passed a national anthem law in June 2020 banning ‘insults’ to the Chinese national anthem after Hong Kong soccer fans repeatedly booed, yelled Cantonese obscenities or turned their backs when it was played at matches.