Apple Daily, ‘The Four Noes’ & the End of Chinese Media Independence

Hong Kong Apostasy

This is the second part of an envoi written for Apple Daily, until this day, 24 April 2021, the leading independent media outlet in Hong Kong, by Lee Yee, a renowned essayist, editor and journalist. In the conclusion to the first part of his farewell, published in China Heritage under the title ‘Lee Yee on the Demise of Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily, Lee wrote:

Regardless of how it has all ended up, there is no doubt that the advent of Apple Daily in Hong Kong represented something significant in the history of Chinese newspaper publishing. It showed that a businessman could actually run a news enterprise more successfully than the usual kind of literati figure. Perhaps, I dare say, its success could be compared to the glory days enjoyed by L’Impartial [aka, Ta Kung Pao] under the editorship of Zhang Jiluan [張季鸞, 1888-1941] from 1926. ‘The Four Noes’ editorial principle that Zhang championed — no to giving in to unquestioning political bias; no to accepting government money or patronage; no to serving narrow vested interests instead of the broader society; and, no to giving in to fashion, conspiracies, mass sentiment and popular prejudice  — became a model and guide for Chinese media.


Below, in part two of Lee Yee’s memoir the writer elaborates on what he meant when he said:

‘The owner of Apple Daily might not have known about the “Four Noes” but, then again, he only ever managed to put some of them into practice.’


The second part of Lee Yee’s essay on Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily was published in the print and electronic versions of the last edition of Apple Daily, one million copies of which were printed in the early hours of 24 June 2021. Copies of the paper were soon snapped up by readers in one of the city’s final acts of collective civil protest against Beijing and its Hong Kong puppet regime.

I am, as ever, grateful to Lao Lee for permission to translate his work.


With the forced closure of Apple Daily, Hong Kong has finally caught up with the fate of Mainland Chinese journalism from the early 1950s. It has taken just over seventy years for the Mainland’s past and present to become the future of the foundering metropole.

Those involved in the Chinese world — the global presence not only of Sinophone languages as well as the various and burgeoning cultures of China — should be in no doubt: the fall of Hong Kong under Xi Jinping’s lugubrious rule — from the arrest of book-sellers and publishers to the death by a mere few dozen surgical cuts of the city’s publishing, media, academic, arts and intellectual life, is also a direct assault on culture worldwide.

The Chinese safe haven for ideas, literature, publishing outlets and the flourishing of a global civilisation has, since 1949, never been Beijing, or Shanghai, Guangzhou or, for that matter, Taipei. For the past seventy-two years, China’s vital cosmopolitan nexus was Hong Kong. The loss of Hong Kong from 1 July 2020, is not merely a tragedy for the pusillanimous Little China of Xi Jinping, or even for the Greater China of an autocratic will to power that dates back to the late-Qing dynasty. Its loss constitutes a vast act of cultural vandalism that hurts and deprives us all.


In the 1970s and 80s, I had the privilege of getting to know, be mentored by, and work with a number of editors who were part of the ‘flight from the Qin’ 避秦 — ‘to escape tyranny on the Mainland’ that Lee Yee has described elsewhere. [See ‘Back in the Year — Hong Kong 1984’China Heritage, 31 July 2019] Their number includes:

Lee Yee himself, who gave me my first editorial job at The Seventies Monthly in the summer of 1977; Yeung Lai-kwan 楊莉君 (韋妮) of New Evening News 新晚報 and her editor-in-chief Lo Fu 羅孚; Pan Jijiong 潘際坰, a veteran journalist was sent from Beijing in 1978 to edit the arts page of Ta Kung Pao, but was in many ways a refugee from the Maoist era; Hsiao Tzu 蕭滋 of Hong Kong Joint Publishing, Ng Sing-fun 吳承歡 of Rediffusion TV 麗的電視; Fong Su 方蘇 of The Nineties Monthly, successor to Lee Yee’s earlier magazine; and Stephen Song 宋淇, one of the founding editors of Renditions, published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I am also grateful to Huang Mengfu 黃孟甫 (黃炳炎) of Po Wen Book Company 波文書局 in Wanchai who published two collections of my jejune Chinese essays in the early 1980s. (For further details, including PDF versions of my Chinese ‘œuvre’, see here.)

I would note that nearly all of these friends had relocated to Hong Kong from the Mainland around the time of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

It is with fond regard and a sweet yet sorrowful nostalgia that I acknowledge these and numerous other Hong Kong mentors who, in a myriad of ways and with extraordinary generosity, inspired, encouraged and guided my fifteen-year life as a Chinese writer, one that was inextricably linked to the free press of Hong Kong past. Their influence in my life, be it as a writer, a translator or as an academic has continued to this day.


As for the elimination of Apple Daily on this day by the quislings of Hong Kong, Stephen Vines rightly observed that:

‘The enemies of liberty can rejoice over how easy it was to kill Apple Daily but they are profoundly mistaken if they believe they have extinguished the spirit which it represented.’

This essay is also included as a chapter in Spectres & Souls, the theme of China Heritage Annual 2021.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
24 June 2021


Related Material:



‘An apple a day keeps the liars away.’

— motto of Apple Daily (20 June 1995-24 June 2021)

The text of Lee Yee’s final column for Apple Daily as it appeared in the print version of the newspaper on 24 April 2021. Source: Lee Yee’s Facebook page


How Could We Ever Bid Farewell to Such a Spirit?

Lee Yee 李怡

a chapter in Reminiscences by One of the Defeated

translated & annotated by Geremie R. Barmé


Zhang Jiluan [張季鸞, 1888-1941], editor of L’Impartial [aka, Ta Kung Pao] during the Republic, an editorial stance summed up in the shorthand expression ‘The Four Noes’. They were ‘No to Party Affiliations; No to Selling Out; No to Vested and Personal Interests; and, No to Craven Populism’.

Zhang explained his desiderata in the following way:

  • ‘No to Party Affiliations’ 不黨 did not mean that the paper would be politically neutral, or that it would treat Party politics and factionalism with simplistic impartially. Rather, under his editorship, the paper would support the citizenry and not be beholden to any political organisation;
  • ‘No to Selling Out’ 不賣 was about maintaining an independent voice, ensuring financial independence, rejecting money offered by political figures and never bargaining with its editorial position;
  • ‘No to Vested and Personal Interests’ 不私 meant that the paper, which Zhang regarded as being a public good, would not serve private interests; it would speak on behalf of and to the public; and,
  • ‘No to Craven Populism’ 不盲, which was a constant reminder to the editors themselves ‘not to follow slavishly popular enthusiasms 盲從; not to provide a platform for ill-informed views 盲信; not to give in to fads 盲動; and, not to take extremist stances that ignored the facts 盲爭.’ Zhang added: ‘Rather than caving in to various forms of “purblindness” 盲, we should always be willing to recognise our own limitations.’


‘The Four Noes’ might appear to be nothing more than a statement of the obvious, even commonsensical. However, in practice things are quite the opposite. Indeed, from my personal experience and observations I have made over many decades, it is extremely difficult for any major media outlet to maintain Zhang’s editorial policies. Even in the case of America, a nation known for the freedom of the press, as recently as the presidential election of 2020, the media proved itself to be unabashedly partisan. As for the Communist Party-dominated media of the Chinese Mainland, what can one possibly say? But, even the old media environment of Hong Kong was hardly a champion of ‘Four Noes’ principles. And this despite the fact that the city was previously a leader in global media freedom rankings. As for how far Hong Kong strayed from Zhang Jiluan’s principles, it was always just a matter of how you wished to measure the distance and for how long you thought it had been going on.

China’s political environment has always been invidious for the media. Various forms of lobbying and united front activities, not to mention the use of intimidation and financial enticements, have always been endemic. Don’t forget that famous writer and editor [Louis Cha 查良鏞, 1924-2018, better known as Jin Yong 金庸, founding editor of the formerly stridently anti-Communist Ming Pao and a best-selling martial arts novelist]. Remember how he changed his tune after he had been received in Beijing by Deng Xiaoping [in July 1981]? Why, he even went so far as to opine that the Hong Kong media should emulate the practices and discipline of the People’s Liberation Army.

[Note: In a statement issued in 1999, Jin Yong declared that: ‘The main duty of journalists is, like that of the People’s Liberation Army, to follow the directions of the Party and the State.’ See Lee Yee, Travelling in Opposite Directions — Jin Yong & Me, China Heritage, 5 November 2018. See also the sanctimonious editorial published by Ming Pao on 23 June 2021: ‘Apple Daily: past the point of no return’]


Not long after Apple Daily was founded [in 1995], even though the new enterprise enjoyed both a succès d’estime and the backing of its prodigiously wealthy owner, Jimmy Lai, operational overheads were cripplingly high and, despite all of his efforts, it was running at a loss. From what I understood at the time, a newly minted young tycoon offered to buy Jimmy out for HK$30 billion [roughly US$400 million today] and with the undertaking that the new management would not interfere with the paper’s editorial independence. Lai’s original investment was only a few billion HK dollars, and he regarded it as little more than a business venture. So, if he had accepted that offer, he would have made a killing. But he refused it outright.


Over the long years the followed, the Mainland made many attempts to get Jimmy Lai onside. I have even written about one such attempt that involved a husband-and-wife team being dispatched to Taiwan to work on Lai. Instead of scoring a success, they ended up being escorted off his property by his security team. Then, of course, various attempts were made by leading cultural figures to convince Lai that he should start up a newspaper on the Mainland. As recently as a few years ago, the Communist authorities even had his relatives pass on an invitation to visit Beijing. Again, he refused. Now, if a Hong Kong literary man had been at the helm of Apple Daily, I have no doubt that, given the habitual behaviour of the Chinese intelligentsia, such approaches by Beijing would have been regarded as too good to refuse.

I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve witnessed old friends using their personal relationships to get something into a newspaper or, more often, to make sure something was never reported. Jimmy Lai simply ignored all such entreaties. I can say that because, since I know him personally, I too have been approached on numerous occasions by people hoping for this or that favour. Since I never had any doubt as to how he would respond, I was able to fob off all such petitions. What I’m saying is that Jimmy Lai successfully applied Zhang Jiluan’s admonition ‘No to Selling Out’.


As for ‘No to Party Affiliations’, if by that one means the regnant political party in Beijing, then there can be absolutely no doubt that Apple Daily always maintained a studious distance. In the context of Hong Kong politics, however, and the drawn out civilian attempts to realise democracy here, Next Media as a whole was consistently biased in favour of the the pan-democracy camp and the political stance of the likes of the Democracy Party, the Civic Party and the ‘Peaceful, Rational, Non-violent’ school of gradualist activism. It shied away from supporting the kind of activism of Hong Kong’s Youth Resistance, Native-soil Activists and the Bravehearts; moreover, it was often highly critical of them. [See ‘Cockroaches That Would Slay Dragons’, China Heritage, 1 September 2019; and, ‘The End of Hong Kong’s Third Way’, China Heritage, 22 April 2020] And that is why, with the rising tide of awareness regarding the local struggle for rights in Hong Kong, young people became increasingly disaffected from Apple Daily. I would also imagine that it is also the reason why, after having been the editor of this paper’s opinion pages for nine years, in the process of which I had welcomed the expression of all kinds of political views, the boss decided that it was time to relieve me of my duties. So, in regards to Zhang Jiluan’s principle of ‘No to Party Affiliations’, I would have to say that Jimmy Lai was not an unmitigated success. With the Anti-Extradition Bill uprising of 2019, however, that stance changed and a true united front of Hong Kong interests that embraced both moderates and radicals evolved .


When, however, it came to the principle of ‘No to Vested and Personal Interests’ 不私, Jimmy Lai was more of a success, for he did not avail himself of the power he enjoyed as the owner of a major media company to pursue his own interests. I would also point out, however, that he did nonetheless support the political interests of the political organisations that he favoured. As for ‘No to Craven Populism’ 不盲, well, Zhang Jiluan said that this was a watchword and a caution to all editors. As to just how successful Apple Daily was in this regard is a matter of personal opinion.


Jimmy Lai’s greatest failing, or limitation, was perhaps that very quality for which he is most deserving of our respect: throughout he abided by the law and erred in believing too faithfully in the independence of Hong Kong’s legal system. Apple Daily was founded a mere two years before the 1997 transition of suzerainty from London to Beijing. Jimmy launched his new enterprise confident that the Communists would abide by the stipulations of the ‘Basic Law’ and the One Country, Two Systems governance framework. He believed that through peaceful protest and agitation for greater civic rights and expanded political participation that it would really be possible for Hong Kong people to end up running their own city in a truly democratic fashion. He simply never appreciated the fact that, for the Communists, the greatest threat comes not in the form of violent opposition, but from the ranks of those who believe that, vouchsafed the protection of the law, they can pursue peaceful means to fight for the autonomy the citizenry.


What will Hong Kong do now that Apple Daily is no more? One thing is for sure, from now on in, no media organisation in the city will have the wherewithal or the gumption to uncover any of the nefarious or corrupt dealings either of the business community or of the government. And that’s because, apart from Jimmy Lai’s Next Media Group, no other Hong Kong media outlet enjoys the confidence of people that it will really be willing to protect its sources. Think back, for example, to the revelations published by Apple Daily in February 2020 about the Chief Executive’s secret report to Party Central in Beijing [in which the politics of pacification were put ahead of dealing with the Covid-19 epidemic in a responsible manner at a crucial phase of the crisis].

[Note: Published on 22 February 2020, the exclusive report was titled ‘獲密件揭林鄭向中央獻計藉抗疫令’. The text of that article has been deleted, along with the newspaper’s online archive.]


Yesterday, Kannie, the editorial assistant who worked with me during my stint as editor of the opinion pages of Apple Daily, published a very good essay on Facebook. In it she said:

‘I don’t want to bid farewell to Apple Daily, nor will I. How could we ever bid farewell to its spirit, particularly in Hong Kong today?’

我編論壇時的助理Kannie 昨天在facebook上寫了一篇好文章,她說,「不想、亦不會向蘋果道別。怎能向一種精神道別?特別在今天的香港。」

Let me reiterate the quotation from Winston Churchill that I have repeatedly referred to when talking about the title of this series of recollections:

‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.’

The animating spirit of Apple Daily was the courage to pursue ‘The Four Noes’ of Zhang Jiluan, and they have long since found a home in the hearts of the people of our city.


Reminiscences by One of the Defeated will continue to appear on my Facebook page.

— Lee Yee 李怡,


(《蘋果的成功與失敗》下) (《失敗者回憶錄》會繼續在本人facebook專頁刊登;


The final edition of Apple Daily, 24 June 2021. Photograph by Dickson Lee

In Conclusion

It was in fact unusual for a Hong Kong tycoon to defy the Communist government and promote democracy. Most businessmen keep quiet or do their best to please and placate the government in Beijing. Local businesses stopped advertising in Lai’s publications, and pro-China newspapers in Hong Kong published cartoons of Lai as a monstrous beast wrapped in the American flag.

Lai faced physical danger as well. His house in Hong Kong was firebombed. He was threatened with machetes, and he was under constant surveillance and followed wherever he went.

Yet he never gave up. Lai turned up every year to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre. He marched in pro-democracy demonstrations. He visited Britain and the United States to elicit support for maintaining Hong Kong’s freedoms. Although he was ridiculed for meeting US Vice President Mike Pence during Trump’s presidency, he went to see the Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, too. And his tabloid, with its peculiar blend of scandal, gossip, and serious political reporting, was Hong Kong’s indispensable voice of free speech.

Now that voice has been silenced, and Lai is in prison with others who tried to protect the right of Hong Kong’s citizens to speak and write freely, to be ruled by law, and to vote for their own autonomous government. Their politics are diverse: Martin Lee is a venerable barrister and moderate liberal democrat, Joshua Wong is a young leftist firebrand, and Lai is a red-baiting, Trump-admiring conservative Christian. Yet they stand together. When freedom is under siege, people cannot afford the narcissism of small differences that is tearing apart liberal politics in countries where people think democracy can be taken for granted.

— from Ian Buruma, ‘The Death of Free Speech in Hong Kong’
Project Syndicate, 25 June 2021