HONG KONG — In the 26 years since its founding, Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper has been unrestrained in its criticism of the Chinese Communist Party and unwavering in its support for the pro-democracy movement. It has survived multiple raids, boycott campaigns and the arrest of its founder, Jimmy Lai, under the draconian new national security law.

But now with its assets frozen by the Hong Kong government, Apple Daily’s publisher, Next Digital, confirmed on Wednesday that it would cease operations this week. In a news article, Apple Daily said the last print edition would be on Thursday, and that operations would cease at midnight on Wednesday.

“It is more than surreal to see,” said Ed Chin, a hedge fund manager and longtime Apple Daily columnist. “These so-called executors of the national security law — they have lost it.”

He added: “They are destroying the autonomy of Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong's pro-democracy Apple Daily said it will print its last edition June 24, after a tough year in which the offices were raided and its owner arrested. (Reuters)

The fate of Apple Daily and its chief editor, top executives and founder Jimmy Lai — all either detained or arrested under the national security law and facing life in prison — are emblematic of the staggering changes underway in Hong Kong. Freedoms guaranteed in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, including freedom of speech and the press, have become secondary to Beijing’s will as it re-engineers the once-autonomous territory and uses the new law to force subservience.

Last August, Jimmy Lai, the media tycoon who founded Apple Daily, became one of the first arrested under the national security law just over a month after it was passed. The law criminalizes broadly worded crimes such as subversion of state power and collusion with foreign forces, punishable by up to life in prison. Lai, in his 70s, has been detained since December and denied bail, like the dozens of others charged under the security law. Police also raided Lai’s newsroom at the time of his arrest in August.

Last Thursday, in an operation that involved some 500 officers, police raided the newsroom a second time and arrested five Apple Daily executives under the national security law, including three of its top editors. Chief editor Ryan Law and chief executive Cheung Kim-hung were later charged under the law, accused of colluding with foreign powers to endanger Hong Kong, and denied bail.

Police say dozens of Apple Daily articles called for Western sanctions against Hong Kong and China, and therefore violated the law, but they have not detailed which articles or named them.

Officers declared Apple Daily’s newsroom a crime scene, barred journalists from accessing the premises during the raid and exercised a warrant that allowed them to seize “journalistic materials.” They scoured reporters’ files and notes and took away about 40 computer devices. Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee also ordered Apple Daily’s assets and that of related companies to be frozen and barred banks from working with them.

Mark Simon, a top adviser to Lai, said the asset freeze has made it impossible for Next Digital, Apple Daily’s publisher, to pay its staff members or vendors, thus forcing the closure of the paper though it still has cash in its banks.

“They made the bank accounts inoperable,” he said in comments to The Post. “We can’t touch our bank accounts, [and] people can’t put money into our accounts.”

Directors held a board meeting on Monday to discuss the fate of the publication in light of the asset freeze and agreed to send a letter to Hong Kong’s Security Bureau asking it to release the funds. If it does not do so, the internal memo said, the company will be unable to operate.

Given the situation, staff can resign immediately if they wish, the memo added.

“The management hopes that staff can stay till the very end, but with the unforeseeable risks ahead, everyone please decide to stay or leave on your own,” the memo said. “Thank you for being by our side all these years.”

Human rights groups and media watchdogs have condemned the treatment of Apple Daily and the arrests of its top executives. Amnesty International called the arrests a “brazen attack on press freedom,” while the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association issued a statement lambasting the government for “weaponizing” the security law to target news reporting. The arrests, raids and asset seizure followed a pattern since the passage of the security law in which the media, and the public broadcaster in particular, has been targeted and muzzled as space for critical coverage shrinks.

Lee, the secretary for security, in a news conference after the raids and arrests last Thursday, characterized the arrested Apple Daily executives as “criminals” and warned the rest of the media industry to “cut ties” with them. The actions, he said, were not “targeting the press” but those “who are exploiting journalism as a tool to threaten national security.”

“We need to differentiate what these suspects have done from normal journalistic work,” Lee said.

Still, people in Hong Kong lined up to buy copies of the newspapers after the raid, which sold out in convenience stores across the city. Apple Daily has more than 600,000 paying subscribers, according to Simon, Lai’s top adviser.

“We are probably the largest [outlet] by most estimates in Hong Kong,” Simon said in an interview with CNN. “If you are a smaller outlet, if you are a blogger. . . . God help you if you get caught up in the Hong Kong national security apparatus.”

This article has been updated to reflect Next Digital’s announcement Wednesday of Apple Daily’s closure.