On defense of human rights, China Team left no stone unturned

S5 Apple Daily Thursday, June 24, 2021
A window through a hard, high wall

On defense of human rights, China Team left no stone unturned

“Apple made our free voices heard”

Wang Quanzhang

From Apple Daily】If you search for “protection of human rights” in Chinese on the media curation platform Wiser, more than 11,000 news stories in the past 5 years alone will turn up—of which over 4,000 are from Apple Daily or Apple Daily Realtime, far more than those from any other media organization. With a dedicated China Team on board, Apple Daily was the print media outlet in Hong Kong that was most attentive to human rights issues in mainland China. “Apple was our platform for free voices, through which we could also see better hopes in the future,” says mainland human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang. Any news of major Chinese human rights incidents in recent years—Apple’s China Team covered them all firsthand without exception: from tracking Liu Xiaobo up close in a Shenyang hospital, his wife Liu Xia arriving in Germany, to Wang Dan in the U.S., wherever around the world the news might be. In the case of “12 Hong Kongers” [the 12 anti-extradition protesters who became extradited to the Mainland after an ill-fated defection attempt to Taiwan that ended tragically with an interception by Chinese authorities at sea], the China Team documented how mainland human rights lawyers fought fiercely on the protesters’ behalf even at the peril of their own disbarment. Of course, the China Team also covered firsthand many breaking news and livelihood issues in the Mainland, offering the world a unique window into China’s realities.

Figure Caption:

  • Since Liu Xiaobo’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, his wife Liu Xia had been put under long-term house arrest at her home in Beijing.

When Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in a hospital in Shenyang in 2017, Apple journalists went there to report for days on end at Shenyang’s hospital, funeral home, and piers. Despite being repeatedly detained and interrogated by police, the reporters managed to get the story out about Liu’s last days. “Live well”—those were Liu’s last words to his wife, Liu Xia. When Liu Xia landed at Finland’s Helsinki Airport following her release from house arrest near the first anniversary of her husband’s death, Apple‘s China Team was there to interview her straightaway. For this work, the Team won the 23th Human Rights Press Awards’ Breaking News Writing award in 2019. After Liu Xia resettled in Germany, the Team arranged for special correspondents there to follow up firsthand, while Team members in Hong Kong sought out the latest updates from Liu Xia’s brother and close friends, together ensuring the most comprehensive and multifaceted coverage.

Despite repeated police interference, reporting of Liu Xiaobo’s final life journey never stopped

2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the June 4th Tiananmen Square Massacre and the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. China Team journalists traveled to the U.S. on this occasion to interview eminent sinology scholar Yu Ying-Shih and a number of June 4 exiles. Wang Dan [one of the exiles] surmised that June 4 might not be the darkest time as yet. This, sadly, proved imminently prescient as the Hong Kong Anti-Extradition Movement soon ensued. Still, who could have imagined that Apple Daily‘s owner and senior management members would number among those arrested for the movement also?

After the Anti-Extradition Movement broke out, most of the China Team journalists were no longer allowed to enter the Mainland. Worse, the pandemic made any on-site reporting in the Mainland all but impossible. Even so, the Team never gave up any opportunity for phone interviews. Hot topics such as rulings of the “709 cases” [China’s nationwide all-at-once crackdown on human rights lawyers, activists, and their relatives on July 9, 2015] always made the China Team’s front page, and phone interviews for responses from concerned family members and friends were also must-haves. On human rights reporting, Apple‘s China Team also had its own takes. On Lunar New Year’s Day this year, Team reporters took the opportunity to interview Wang Quanzhang by phone. It was Wang Q.’s first New Year since his release, and all the raw emotions pouring out at that moment were captured vividly in that story. On Mother’s Day last month, Apple [phone] interviewed three special women—all wives of imprisoned mainland human rights lawyers—to highlight their struggles between caring for the husband in jail and for the rest of the family. Motherhood makes a woman strong!

Apple‘s follow-up with families of “12 Hong Kongers” in the Mainland via phone interview

In last year’s “12 Hong Kongers” case, Apple‘s China Team followed up closely with mainland human rights lawyers Ren Quanniu and others assisting the families concerned, in order to decipher China’s judicial process and uncover the injustice therein. The interview reports also showcased the passion and hard work of these dedicated lawyers who, like other mainland human rights lawyers, had to tread a fine line within China’s legal framework in tangling with detention center staff, often at the risk of reprisal with inevitable disbarment. Unfortunately, lawyers who yearn for improved ‘rule of law’ in China the most are always seen by the regime as the biggest obstacle to its ‘rule by law.’

Many human rights cases are currently still pending. For example, Yu Wensheng is still in jail. Citizen journalists Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, who reported on the coronavirus pandemic, are still missing. We hope our readers will continue to pay attention to news about human rights violations and protection in the Mainland. Regrettably, with Apple‘s shutdown, the China Team cannot be around with you on this anymore.

From ’89 Democratic Movement to “709 cases”: keeping close track with social movement

【From Apple DailyWith Apple‘s longstanding focus on the plight of human rights defenders in the Mainland, news of its shutdown was met with sadness by many of those concerned, from student leaders of the 1989 Democratic Movement to the defense lawyers in the “709 cases”. Student movement leader Wang Dan states that even though Apple is gone, Apple‘s spirit of fighting injustice must go on. Wang Quanzhang, a defense lawyer in the “709 cases,” calls Apple a platform through which suppressed voices in the Mainland could be heard.

Wang Dan hopes the spirit of fighting injustice goes on

 “I have deep feelings for Apple, having been a contributor to Apple since its inaugural issue,” said WANG Dan, a June 4, 1989 student movement leader Apple had a close rapport with for over 20 years. “With its shutdown, I am not only outraged but heartbroken.” Every June 4th, Apple would invariably interview Wang D. almost as a ritual. “I have great respect for Apple. Faced with constant suppression by Beijing from beginning to end, Apple has never backed down. Apple was worth having.”

     “Apple has always been a guardian and beacon of truth, the voice of the voiceless in China.” Wang D. feared that without Apple, it would be difficult for the rest of the world to see what is really happening in Hong Kong. He vowed that even if Apple is shut down, its spirit will stay. “Apple may be gone, but the Apple spirit will go on—the spirit that stands firm on defending press freedom and defying tyranny, never capitulating, never compromising.”

     When news of Apple‘s shutdown hit Wang Quanzhang, a human rights defense lawyer for the “709 cases” who was arrested in 2015 and released last year, he lamented: “I am greatly saddened, even angry.” He added that upon his release from jail, he was grateful to learn that Apple had been following his case closely. “Apple gave us a platform for free voices, through which we could also see better hopes in the future,” he said.

     Because Apple was deemed a sensitive foreign media organization in the Mainland, newsgathering there had not been easy. Interviews could only be conducted by phone. My last interview with Wang Q. was by video conferencing. “Aren’t you Yang Mo?”—he asked. “It’s Yang Mo here,” I replied, adding: “Since this is our last [interview], we’ve got to do it face to face of course.” The Hong Kong journalist and the mainland human rights lawyer finally met. “I am very grateful to you,” Wang Q. said. “Since my release last year, you are the only reporter who has continued to follow up on this case and report on our well-being. I have read some of Apple‘s reports and watched the videos too. Thank you all very much for voicing on behalf of ordinary people like us.”

     Wang Q.’s parting words: “Take care, brother.”

By Yang Mo

Figure Captions:

  • Human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang embracing his wife Li Wenzu and son in a hug at their home in Beijing upon his release from jail in April last year.
  • Apple journalists went to Wuhan to report on the pandemic outbreak when a citywide lockdown there was imposed by the government.
  • Former owner of Causeway Bay Bookstore Lam Wing-Kee said he chose to buy Apple to read because of its credibility. Lam now lives in Taiwan. (Photo from archive)

Lam Wing-Kee: “The moment I got back to Hong Kong upon release, I bought Apple.”

【From Apple DailyCauseway Bay Bookstore incident, Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, “12 Hong Kongers” case—those involved in these major incidents all deplored the closing of Apple, which had covered their horrendous stories closely. They mourned the final evaporation of the freedom of expression in Hong Kong.

Mourning the fall of an icon of freedom of expression in Hong Kong

 “Once I was released in the Mainland, the first thing I did upon returning to Hong Kong was to buy a copy of Apple,” said former Causeway Bay Bookstore owner Lam Wing-Kee, who now lives in Taiwan. Lam lamented that when he was detained in the Mainland from 2015-16, he was totally cut off from information and knew nothing about the outside. That was why he could not wait to look up Apple to find out what had transpired with his bookstore after he was “disappeared” from Hong Kong. “I got to Apple right away because I was hoping to find in it what I wanted to know. It all boiled down to a matter of credibility relative to other newspapers.” Lam said he considered Apple an icon of freedom of expression, almost matching up to Liu Xiaobo.

     The news of Apple‘s shutdown also shocked Zhang Hai, whose father died during the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. Zhang related that government media had actually interviewed him about his ordeal before, but unlike Apple, nothing eventually came out of it. “We are very grateful to Apple for voicing on our behalf. Apple means a lot to us.”

     Ren Quanniu, the mainland human rights lawyer who assisted in the “12 Hong Kongers” case, said that losing an iconic media organization like Apple that speaks truth with principles is absolutely a great disservice to Hong Kong and the media industry. Ren believed that from now on, people in Hong Kong will be blinded by lies and deceptions more and more. They may even be shut up like ‘silence of the lambs’ and become further and further removed from the truth. 

Figure Caption:

  • Ruins of a sprawling container storage station for hazardous chemicals at the Port of Tianjin, which was flattened by massive explosions on August 12, 2015. (Photo from archive)

Eyewitness coverage of the pandemic and earthquake: 15 hours on foot into the epicenter

【From Apple DailyApple‘s China Team had been tirelessly tenacious in uncovering the realities of the hardships besetting ordinary people across mainland China—from the ‘cliff village’ of Liangshan in Sichuan Province to poverty-stricken Bijie mountain villages in Guizhou Province, Apple reporters had been there doing their job however far-off and inaccessible that might be. Time after time, those eyewitness reports earned Apple the prestigious SOPA (The Society of Publishers in Asia) Award, a.k.a. “The Pulitzer Prize of Asia.” Whenever natural or man-made disasters struck, China Team members always put themselves at the forefront, their own safety aside, in order to bring eyewitness coverage to the public. Last year, Apple reporters were in Wuhan for two weeks to cover the impending coronavirus outbreak, before and after the city’s lockdown. In 2008, when the Wenchuan Earthquake hit Sichuan Province, Apple reporters walked 15 hours into the epicenter. Such selfless dedication to newsgathering epitomizes Apple‘s China Team spirit. 

Undeterred by the lack of Mainland press card privilege

Unlike other Hong Kong media organizations, Apple‘s China Team was not afforded ‘press cards’ privilege in the Mainland. That did not stop the Team from doing its job, however. Before the pandemic, the Team used to dispatch journalists to the Mainland almost every month to gather news. Challenging as that might be compared to other media outlets, the Team did pen many real-life news stories over the years that evinced larger-than-life issues. To expose the flaws of the Poverty Alleviation Campaign, Team reporters climbed a steel ladder of 2,556 steps to an impoverished and isolated cliffside village in Liangshan, Sichuan Province. This could easily be the most ‘undingable’ assignment ever. To document the ‘left-behind children’ problem, Team reporters visited the mountain villages in Bijie, Guizhou Province and uncovered the plight of 70 million home-alone ‘orphans’ whose parents had left home to find jobs in large cities.

     In January 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan was made public, Apple reporters were already on the ground, in and out of Wuhan City twice, amidst uncertainties about the epidemic. This feat made Apple the only newspaper from Hong Kong that had followed the epidemic story with on-site, firsthand coverage from coverup to lockdown. Those reports earned Apple the 25th Human Rights Press Awards’ Breaking News Award in 2021. The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake destroyed the roads into the epicenter of Yingxiu Town. Getting there took Apple reporters 15 hours on foot, carrying only three bottles of water. They brought back to Hong Kong the most momentous but least known facts about the disaster. When the African Swine Fever swept through Guangdong Province in 2018, pork supplies to Hong Kong became a concern. Right away, Team reporters visited pig farms there and uncovered a delay of several days in the official declaration of the outbreak there. 

     Unlike other traditional media outlets in Hong Kong, Apple‘s China Team often covered soft news in the Mainland firsthand featuring fads or peculiar local customs, even some daredevil acts. An in-joke was “a China Team reporter would have tried a weird ‘food’ or two for sure.” A quintessential example was a dish in Liping, Guizhou Province known as ‘cow poop hot pot’. It so shocked one reporter that he began to doubt his senses after eating. “Don’t you guys smell poop all around us?”—he muttered, even after he had already left Guizhou. A rare moment of laughter looking back. Most evoke sighs.

Apple‘s coverage of China‘s human rights news in recent years

Award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu XiaoboLiu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize was placed on an empty chair in Liu’s absence. History will remember this day. (2010.12.11)
Series of interviews with mainland human rights lawyers following the “709 cases”Perseverance of human rights lawyers upholding justice in the face of suppression by the government. (2015.7.20)
Liu Xiaobo diesLiu’s last words to his wife Liu Xia: “Live well”. (2017.7.14)
Liu Xia arrives in GermanyUpon landing in Germany for medical treatment, Liu Xia cheered with open arms in celebration of fulfilling Liu Xiaobo’s last wish: “I’m free!” (2018.7.11)
The day before the signing of the China-Vatican Agreement on the appointment of bishops in China, underground Catholic churches in the Mainland reactMainland underground Catholic church members observed Mass on their own, defying the Chinese Communist Party decree. (2018.9.23)
Phone interview with Wang Quanzhang, the “last person remaining” jailed in the “709 cases,” upon his final release“You have suffered a lot, dear,” Wang Q. blubbered to his wife, weeping. (2020.4.29)
Phone interviews with mainland human rights lawyers Ren Quanniu and Lu Siwei, who defended the “12 Hong Kongers” in their caseMainland human rights lawyers’ all-out, selfless defense on behalf of 12 Hong Kongers, irrespective of own disbarment. (2021.1.29)

Source: Apple archive

China Team's accolades in recent years

2021From silence to panics: the scenes in Wuhan before the coronavirus pandemic25th Human Rights Press Awards—Breaking News Writing Award
2019Controversy over the world's first gene-edited twins: a critical reviewThe Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA)—Excellence in Explanatory Reporting Award
2019African Swine Fever inches closer to Hong KongThe Society of Publishers in Asia—Excellence in Reporting Breaking News Award
2019Liu Xia arrives in Germany for treatment; fulfilling Liu Xiaobo's last wish; freedom in the end23th Human Rights Press Awards—Breaking News Writing Award
2018Chinese Orphan Acrobatic TroupeThe Society of Publishers in Asia—Excellence in Video Reporting Award
201770 million left behind childrenThe Society of Publishers in Asia—Excellence in Video Reporting Honorable Mention

Source: Apple archive

Memorable quotes from Apple's interviewees

Wang DanI have great respect for Apple. Faced with constant suppression by Beijing in the past twenty-some years, from beginning to end, Apple has never backed down. Apple was worth having.
Wang DanApple may be gone, but the Apple spirit will go on—the spirit that stands firm on defending press freedom and defying tyranny, never capitulating, never compromising.
Gao YuApple belongs to the Hong Kong people, not just the Apple staff. I am deeply moved by their devotion to and support of Apple.
Wang QuanzhangI have great admiration for you all. My thanks and best wishes to you whatever you decide next. In times like this, staying strong like what you have shown is already very, very amazing.
Wang QuanzhangApple gave us a platform for free voices, through which we could also see better hopes for the future.
Lam Wing-KeeThe day Apple shuts down is the beginning of the end of freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
Zhang HaiApple means a lot to us [families of human rights activists]. There is no other platform like Apple that would voice on our behalf.
Ren QuanniuAbsent an iconic media organization like Apple that speaks truth with principles, people in Hong Kong will be blinded by lies and deceptions more and more and become further and further removed from the truth from now on.
Zhang Xianling [mother of Tiananmen Square Massacre victim]Holding a June 4 vigil in Hong Kong is no longer possible this year. Now, Apple is also shut down. This is absolutely a great loss to Hong Kong.

Source: Content of Apple interviews