Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Apple Daily and Jimmy Lai: Trying to save democracy in Hong Kong

In most countries Jimmy Lai would be considered a business hero. That's definitely the case in Hong Kong where he lives as the CEO of Next Media. As you may also know, Jimmy Lai is also the highest profile defender of democracy in Hong Kong and was recently arrested - together with some of his family members and staff, by Chinese authorities under the new 'anti-terrorism' laws which are designed specifically by the authorities (read Beijing) to enforce communist party rule in Hong Kong.
Update 12/8/20:  Lai has been jailed on trumped up fraud charges related to the illegal operation of a business. He has been denied bail and his court hearing is scheduled for April 2021.  His attorney's say they will appeal this denial but the government says he is a flight risk even though they have his passport and he's not tried to leave HK. This recent intimidation by the Beijing government occurs in tandem with the arrest of several pro democracy activists. (BBC)

In 1998, I was engaged on a consulting assignment for Next Media in Hong Kong and spent two months working on a technology strategy for the newspaper business which published Apple Daily.  Lai had just sold his retail clothing business and was focusing all his attention on his new newspaper.  He had established Apple Daily three or four years years before I arrived in Hong Kong and he built the business from the ground up including building his own state of the art printing plant. The newspaper was seeing very rapid growth fueled by sensationalist lead stories including one which lead to a suicide. While I was there, the paper was following the rags to riches story of a local gangster who was on trial for murder with other lurid details the paper threw in every day. Apparently, this gangster spread the money around and was nick named "Big Spender" by Apple Daily and became a bit of a cult hero. Perfect material for a newspaper like Apple Daily. Over a three week period, I learned all about Big Spender from my Chinese colleagues and three days after he was convicted Big Spender was hanged. Justice is swift in China.
My interaction with Lai was infrequent but I definitely had the sense his vision far exceeded the awareness of the executives (and consultants) who worked for him. I've seen this trait in other interactions with executives (such as Jeff Bezos) where coming away from the conversation you are left thinking that they are almost bored with the discussion because they are thinking so far ahead or far more strategically. At Next Media, Lai was thinking not only about how technology could help support his newspaper but also the many new businesses he wanted to experiment with such as online retail, home deliveries and membership programs. In one exchange he described "UberEats" and wanted his team to investigate establishing a van fleet and supporting logistics. This was 1998 and we hadn't even had the first internet bubble yet. We thought he was a little nuts.
Jimmy Lai's Next Media is now the last independent voice in Hong Kong media. Since their start as a sensationalist newspaper, and as other newspapers folded, Apple Daily became a political voice for the democracy movement in Hong Kong. Sadly, the options for Jimmy Lai, his family and employees are stark: either give up criticism of the ruling party or lose everything including their freedom. Leaving Hong Kong would be the only other option. Jimmy Lai doesn't want to do that. Jimmy Lai is a hero. (Listen to The Daily interview with him).
My consulting work at Next Media involved a review of the IT environment and internal workflow procedures in the Apple Daily editorial and production functions. I lead the team which conducted interviews and work groups and developed a thorough understanding of the IT environment, internal processes and procedures. Based on our analysis, six key projects designed to support management’s goals and objectives were identified. The toughest challenge in this work was language since most of the workers did not have a good understanding of English. This was also an issue for technology. 
We found that software typically found in news operations the US and Europe simply wasn't available. Standard editorial solutions from Atex and Unisys Hermes had not been translated due to the complicated nature of the double byte translation problem. We did locate a local vendor that had 'translated' an older version of Atex into Mandarin which was exactly what we were looking for except for the theft issue. Next Media was producing 300,000 copies a day using a cobbled together set of home grown software.
My teams recommendations were fairly rudimentary: The development of a formal IT organizational structure, definition of an IT strategy, stabilization of the network
and a more structured approach to processes, personnel roles and responsibilities. We also provided best practices relative to newspaper publishing and profiled
a number of the major workflow package providers for newspapers.
This was one of my most interesting projects and to spend that much time in Hong Kong was also a bonus. At the time (1998), the transfer of power from the UK to China was still in its early days and there was hope and expectation that 'one country, two systems' was doable. Just over 20 years later and that hope is gone.

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