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Ping On – Columbia Journalism Review

Hong Kong Court News, an online outlet that debuted at the start of the year, operates out of a rented coworking space in Wong Chuk Hang, an artsy neighborhood on the southern part of Hong Kong Island. There’s just enough room to fit the site’s cofounders—Cheung Lai San and Alvin KM Chan—plus three reporters. A pair of cats wander in from next door, seeking attention. On a wall is the word 平安 (ping on), meaning safe and well, a craft project made from tickets that are printed on brightly colored sheets of paper and distributed to reporters at court hearings.

When I visited, Cheung and Chan were at their desks, toggling between computer monitors and phones. Cheung is in her forties, with shoulder-length hair and thick-frame glasses. Until recently, she was an editor at Citizen News—“a refugee camp,” as a contributor put it, for members of Hong Kong’s independent press. For a while, Citizen News ran mostly analysis pieces; then, in the summer of 2019, when the city was flooded with pro-democracy protests, the newsroom ramped up its reporting. In 2020, China’s mainland government imposed a national security law—a vague, broad statute that gave authorities the right to silence dissent, with a maximum sentence of life in prison. Hong Kong’s media outlets were among the early casualties; more than a thousand reporters lost their jobs. Citizen News went dark early last year. “I was left with a question,” Cheung said. “To go back and look for a job in the industry, switch careers, become independent”—go freelance—“or start something on my own.”

By that point, at least ten thousand Hong Kongers had been arrested in relation to the protests. Less than a third of them were formally charged, but the security law gave the government license to file claims against just about anyone, including some twenty media workers. The city’s court was stuck with a backlog of cases. Cheung decided to start Hong Kong Court News to keep track of how those cases progressed—including where press freedom was on trial. Among the news organizations that had shuttered during the security-law crackdown were Apple Daily—a major paper where Chan used to work—and Stand News, known for pursuing controversial political stories; their offices were raided, and the names atop their mastheads appeared on court dockets. Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, was sentenced to thirteen months’ imprisonment for his alleged connection to a vigil marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Chung Pui-kuen, a former editor in chief of Stand News, and Patrick Lam, who took over for him, were charged with sedition.

As Cheung and Chan got Hong Kong Court News up and running, the Chung and Lam case headed to trial. Hong Kong Court News published daily updates, including transcripts from the cross-examination—unorthodox in Hong Kong media. On one occasion, Laura Ng, the lead prosecutor, asked Chung whether Stand News staffers were “yellow”—the color that symbolizes Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp. “I wouldn’t say that,” Chung replied.

At the office, Chan—also in his forties, with razor-short hair, a mustache, and black-rimmed glasses—told me that focusing on the courtroom, rather than Hong Kong’s broader political context, was strategic. “The risk is slightly lower,” he said.

Cheung agreed. “There’s no room for you to alter or interpret anything,” she said. “What you write about is what’s being said in court.” By directly transcribing what happens at hearings, they felt, they could reflect Hong Kong’s harsh political realities without being accused of bias. There has been no shortage of cases; every evening after the staff have gone home, they screen Hong Kong’s court listings and confer, over group chat, about what to cover the next day. “We try not to miss any trial that is of public interest,” Cheung said. 

Before Hong Kong Court News, Chan had been in charge of planning Apple Daily’s last edition, and he distributed copies outside the office. In his current job, he’s taken on a myriad of roles. Cheung pointed at him and said, “You see the HR department, the editorial department, the accounting department, IT, admin, and design department here.” 

“All the heck,” Chan said. The site is supported by subscriptions; there are around a hundred and eighty. That doesn’t bring in enough money to cover the newsroom’s costs, so Cheung and Chan pay their reporters and take meager salaries for themselves; they’ve had to supplement their income with freelance writing gigs. Still, they are making plans: they hope to print a weekly paper that will summarize how major cases are unfolding. 

“But who knows what will happen tomorrow?” Cheung said. She laughed and shot me a knowing look. “If we could survive for six months, it would already be a milestone.”

That intention—to look for openings in a tightly regulated environment—is common among journalists in Hong Kong. At an industrial building in Kowloon, in the northern part of the city, nestled among working-class neighborhoods, I checked out a studio shared by two former Citizen News reporters, Ryan Lai and Jacky Cheung. The place was cozy; the guys had inherited almost everything inside—tables, chairs, computer monitors—from the old Citizen News office. A TV screen that used to belong to the China Team—once an elite group of reporters focused on news from the mainland, who quit en masse after a leadership shake-up—now plays ViuTV, a local station that many perceive as “yellow.” When I arrived, ViuTV was airing Barbie cartoons.

Lai—who is twenty-six, bespectacled, tall, and slim—had a dreamy way of speaking, as if he’d just woken up from a nap. The studio had a coffee machine, but he preferred to drink instant from a paper cup, he said, because “cleaning is too much trouble.” His focus was elsewhere. Lai’s career had started in a political context that was becoming increasingly authoritarian; working for Citizen News, as a visual reporter, was his first job, and it lasted just months. Last year, he launched a YouTube channel called The WELL; he got the name from a poem by a Chinese lawyer, who had borrowed from Martin Niemöller’s Nazi-era “First They Came.” The first verse of the Chinese version is: “The miners keep dying, and I didn’t cry out for them, because I didn’t have to go down the well.” When Citizen News announced its closure, employees posted goodbye letters to readers on the website; Lai’s quoted the poem. “I want to be the person who goes down the well,” he’d written.

At the studio, Lai was editing a documentary on Hong Kong’s young working poor; recently, he’d shot films about the city’s homeless and people who had moved to Hong Kong’s outlying islands—all sympathetic human-interest stories. But when he touched on “sensitive topics,” such as the anniversary of Apple Daily’s closure, he said, he self-censored, focusing on the emotional state of interviewees rather than fraught facts. “It’s impossible to completely avoid these subjects,” he told me. “You just have to be very careful.”

Courtesy of Hong Kong Court News

Across the room was Cheung, who is twenty-eight. He spoke softly and wore a black baseball cap that covered half his face. “I want to report stories from the standpoint of Hong Kong,” he said. “These are things that the media based outside of Hong Kong cannot do.” After the security law, and the loss of most homegrown news outlets, mainstream media—including Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the city’s public broadcaster—were placed under government management. Cheung observed the city’s narrative shift over to voices outside its borders. Coverage came from Flow HK, based in Taiwan; Green Bean Media, in the United Kingdom; and sites like Commons Hong Kong and The Points, run by far-flung former members of Hong Kong’s press. “You can’t feel the people’s sentiments without being at a close distance,” Cheung said. Last March, Cheung started his own site: Hong Kong City Creation.

Hong Kong City Creation covers general news and culture. In his articles—on banned films, a shop in Kwai Chung Plaza that hires protesters released from prison, a guy named Thomas who travels across the city wearing a dinosaur costume—Cheung doesn’t produce the same head-on politics reporting he did at his previous job. But the idea is to tell stories of the city and address important political subjects in ways that are, at least superficially, not so controversial. Last year, he tracked down a boy who’d cried at a police station during a 2019 mob attack in Yuen Long. “He said that his friends who always rode bicycles with him had all left Hong Kong in the past few years, but he insisted on staying,” Cheung said. “From his experience, you could actually see the changes in Hong Kong.”

Both The WELL and Hong Kong City Creation live on donations, which subsidize part of their studio rent. To sustain their operations, the guys have had to take on side jobs; Cheung has lectured at an elementary-school journalism club. How long they can keep up their passion projects is uncertain. “We are just taking it one day at a time,” Cheung said.

Across Kowloon, I stepped out of Prince Edward station, crowded with eateries and shopping malls. During the protests, rumors circulated that police had beaten activists to death here. Officers sealed the place off, blocking entry to journalists and paramedics; they denied the charges. Every month since, Hong Kongers have left flowers around the station’s perimeter. Nearby, in an old walk-up, is an independent bookstore called Have a Nice Stay, which was opened last May by a group of journalists whose outlets went defunct.

The shop’s name is a message to those who have remained in Hong Kong during an emigration wave—an explicitly political one that has not been limited to members of the press. In 2022, local authorities reported a loss of sixty thousand residents. Kris Lau—one of Have a Nice Stay’s founders, who spent ten years covering local news—said the group’s aim was to create a space for Hong Kongers to read books, drink wine, live well. They also envisioned the shop as a gathering place to promote the scrappy independent press outlets that have been emerging lately. “Fragmentation is the future,” he told me. “If you are an integrated media”—a general-news outlet—“you have to avoid some things; there are things you cannot do.” Focusing on a single subject seems to make it easier to navigate around redlines. “I think ideally the total amount of information for the readers would remain the same as before, and the responsibility of the readers is to assemble a newspaper by themselves, from A1 to entertainment to sports.”

Lau—who is thirty-three, with round glasses and short curly hair—showed me around. Have a Nice Stay was decorated modestly; a collection of newspaper covers were displayed on the walls, including the first edition of Apple Daily and a July 1997 issue of the South China Morning Post covering the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China. Wooden shelves were piled with literary nonfiction and textbooks for news reporting 101. Almost every weekend, the founders have invited journalists to share their work, including Alvin KM Chan, Jacky Cheung, and Bao Choy—a former freelance documentary producer for RTHK who was convicted of making false statements in her coverage of the pro-democracy protests; recently, she launched an investigative startup called The Collective HK. Many of the shop’s regulars, Lau said, were aspiring reporters.

In February, Have a Nice Stay hosted In Voices Strong, a group of documentarians, for an after-hours workshop. Dora Choi, a volunteer with In Voices Strong, had previously been at Hong Kong Connection, a long-running documentary-news program produced by RTHK. Choi and her peers were trained by senior colleagues, back in the day; now that RTHK has lost its independence, up-and-comers have no way to learn about production techniques, editing, ethics. “It has been very harsh for them,” Choi said. “Senior reporters who cared about documentaries have left.”

At a recent session, Choi discussed the complicated relationship between a filmmaker and an interviewee: “Are we work partners? Could we be friends?” “How do you gain trust?” “Why would someone agree to be filmed?” A student asked, “Is making documentaries really moral?” Choi didn’t have a fixed answer. “It all depends on the approach and the practice of the person behind the camera,” she said.

Choi was moved by the presence of young filmmakers. “It’s good to know that there are still people out there who care about media ethics and these very conceptual problems,” she told me. “And it’s good that we can still gather.”

For a while after the security law was enacted, Lau said, Hong Kongers were depressed and afraid. Over time, though, “people were like, Oh, I can kind of guess where the redline is and how to play their game.” It’s always guessing—“We feel it’s suffocating at times,” he told me. “But still, there’s space to breathe.”

Hsiuwen Liu is a journalist and photographer based in Hong Kong. She was previously a features reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek’s Chinese edition.

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