Pro-Democracy Hong Kong Websites Brought Down By Massive Hacking Attacks

On Wednesday 18 Next Media, Hong Kong's largest media company, was the target of an unprecedented hacking attack that paralysed some of its most prominent websites, such as that of the popular newspaper Apple Daily. Tim Yiu, Next Media's chief operating officer, said that he received the first reports of massive attacks at around 2 am. According to Eric Chen, the president of Apple Daily Taiwan, the company had reinforced its web defences against hacking following attacks in February, but the last attacks were so strong that the system was overwhelmed. The Hong Kong website of Apple Daily was able to resume operations only after 12 hours, while its Taiwan edition was affected less severely.

Apple Daily head office in Taipei (source)

It is not clear who is behind the attacks, but many suspect that they were launched on Beijing's initiative or by pro-Beijing groups. Jimmy Lai, the founder of Next Media, stated that he didn't want to speculate, but that "whoever is behind it, it’s obvious that he wants to muzzle the voice for the referendum". 

Jimmy Lai's group has been a prominent advocate of the Occupy Central movement, a pro-democracy initiative that wants to pressure Beijing into introducing the system of universal suffrage for the next Hong Kong Chief Executive elections in 2017. Tensions between the pro-democracy camp and the pro-Beijing camp have escalated in recent weeks, as Beijing issued a white paper reasserting that the Hong Kong SAR is subordinate to the central government. 

The fact that on June 14 the website of Occupy Central suffered a cyber attack seems to be no coincidence. The organisers had called for an unofficial online referendum, scheduled for June 22, to ask Hong Kong's citizens to choose the voting system for the 2017 Chief Executive Elections. Jimmy Lai had taken part in a daily walk in support of Occupy Central's referendum

On Wednesday Apple Daily issued a statement on its Taiwanese website.: 

Taiwan Apple Daily condemns the so far strongest hacking attacks ever suffered by Next Media, and it believes that this is a serious infringement of the freedom of the press and a political crackdown on the struggle for democracy of the Hong Kong people. Apple Daily states that because the online voting system on the issue of universal suffrage has also been the victim of attacks, we have reason to suspect that the attacks originated from China ... [T]oday's Hong Kong is tomorrow's Taiwan. Today Apple Daily was attacked; tomorrow, another media group may be attacked ... In order to safeguard the freedom of the press, Apple Daily will not surrender and it will not change its pro-democracy standpoint ...

Jimmy Lai is a notorious opponent of the Chinese Communist Party. Born in 1948 in a poor family in China's Guangdong Province, he came to the British colony of Hong Kong as a penniless 12-year-old boy. He first worked as a janitor earning $10 a month, but he made his way to become factory manager. In the 1970s he gambled his money and invested what he'd won in his own company. In the 1980s he founded the brand Giordano and made a fortune on the Asian textile market (Willis Witter: Hong Kong Paper Not Easing Up on Tiananmen Attack: Will Apple Daily Survive Takeover? The Washington Times, June 13, 1997). 

In the spring of 1989 Jimmy Lai's life changed as he saw the images of the People's Liberation Army entering Tiananmen Square and suppressing the pro-democracy movement. "It made me realize information was the core of freedom," he later declared. "Just making money no longer motivated me. But if I could deliver information, which is freedom, and still make money at the same time . . ." (ibid.).

Jimmy Lai decided to enter Hong Kong's highly competitive media market. In 1990 he founded Next Media, which revolutionised the city's media landscape by introducing tabloid-style journalism that contained eye-catching headlines, crime stories, gossip, paparazzi scoops and soft pornography. In an August 1994 issue of Next Magazine, Jimmy Lai wrote a column attacking PRC Premier Li Peng, accusing him of being responsible for the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. In the article, Jimmy Lai called Li "a turtle's egg with zero IQ", a serious offense in Chinese (see Rowan Callick: Comrades and Capitalists, 1998, p. 95). 

A few weeks after the publication of the column, Jimmy Lai's Giordano store in Beijing was closed, apparently due to 'licensing problems' (Witter 1997, and Dixon / Newman: Entering the Chinese Market, 1998, p. 48). By 1996 25 of its 93 franchise stores in China had been closed, and in March of the same year 11 of his Shanghai stores had been closed on charges of tax avoidance (Dixon / Newman 1998, p. 48). Jimmy Lai sold all his stakes in the company in order to save it. 

In 1995, he launched another newspaper, Apple Daily. This was a huge gamble just two years before Hong Kong's handover to the PRC and in the midst of his troubles with Giordano. He hired 10 managers and 235 journalists from other media groups, offering them higher salaries. He launched a $HK100 million advertising campaign, and during the first month, Apple Daily was sold at a 60% discount in a fierce price-cutting war with its competitors. Jimmy Lai was prepared to lose money until the paper turned profitable (Lee, pp. 130-131, in: Ming Chan: The Challenge of Hong Kong's Reintegration with China, 1997). The gamble worked, and Apple Daily became one of the most popular newspapers in Hong Kong, with a daily circulation of more than 195,000 copies in 2013.

Ironically, Apple Daily is not mainly a political magazine. Most of its articles consist of gossip, sex and crime. But the newspaper is committed to independent news reports and true facts, and it does not shrink from uncovering scandals that involve the political and economic establishment of both Hong Kong and the mainland. "[W]hen it comes to reporting news," said Jimmy Lai in the 1990s, "I tell reporters, as long as it's true, print it. I will be responsible" (Witter 1997). For instance, the newspaper reported on the trial of dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan, news which Hong Kong media that do not want to incur the wrath of the Communist Party usually avoid.

Jimmy Lai's media group has been punished for its outspoken pro-democracy and anti-Communist line. "We have almost no real estate advertisement because real estate companies are mostly big companies with business in China," he explained in an interview. "We have 30-35% less ads than we should have. And now the boycott has become very permanent and very organised".