Hong Kongers were the mourners and the city’s newsstands the funeral parlour as residents lined up across the city to buy the final edition of Apple Daily.

The pro-democracy newspaper was an irritant for the city’s authorities for decades. The company was forced to close after officials froze its assets and arrested senior journalists under a sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on the territory after pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Residents turned out in droves to buy the final edition on Thursday — Apple Daily printed 1m copies rather than its normal 150,000 — in a quiet act of a resistance. “Hong Kong people are feeling really sad, and this is the only support I can give,” said Deborah, a 50-year-old teacher who queued in the rain.

Apple Daily was a powerful symbol of the latent dissent still raging below the surface of the city. The closure of the Chinese-language newspaper signals how authorities are using the national security law to stifle Hong Kong’s free-spirited media.

Apple Daily was founded by Jimmy Lai, a 73-year-old entrepreneur who made his fortune in clothing manufacturing and retail before launching the newspaper in 1995.

Beijing promised a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong for 50 years following the handover of the city from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, including freedom of the press and speech.

Lai has long been one of China’s most prominent critics in the city. When Li Peng, the Chinese leader most closely associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, justified the crackdown on student protesters, Lai was incensed. He called him “a turtle’s egg” in an opinion article, a Chinese insult similar to calling someone “a son of a bitch”, and has been a nemesis of Beijing ever since.

Apple Daily mixed celebrity gossip with serious news and investigations. The paper was one of the few big print publications on Chinese soil willing to criticise local and central government leaders and its influence extended across the city’s media. “The company has also nurtured many senior reporters,” said Ronson Chan, president of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

The tabloid was not without its critics and has been accused of sensationalism, sexism and racism. Up until the early 2000s, it ran a column under the pseudonym “Fat Dragon”, which interspersed criticism of local bureaucrats with reviews of brothels. More recently, it was accused of racial profiling in its coverage of ethnic minorities and mainland Chinese residents of the city.

Apple Daily was popular but the newspaper and Lai have faced a firestorm since the 2019 protests, which the company was accused of cheerleading. The tabloid printed large posters that were waved during demonstrations and lambasted the authorities and Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive.

“Supporting Apple Daily became a certain kind of activism,” said Rose Luqiu, an assistant journalism professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, from buying the newspaper to purchasing shares in Next Digital, its parent group.

It was “not only reporting the social movement but also mobilising the movement. So that triggered the authorities into using harder repression tactics,” Luqiu added.

Tim, a 21-year-old student, started reading the newspaper because of its coverage of the demonstrations. “Especially during the protests, it became clear we need Apple Daily in our lives,” he said. “It has driven my political views.”

The paper’s activist approach, however, may have hastened its demise, analysts say.

Lai was convicted this year over his participation in a protest. He also faces separate charges, including conspiracy to collude with foreign forces under the national security law and has been jailed. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment and many believe he will never be free again.

The arrested Apple Daily executives include Ryan Law, the paper’s editor-in-chief, and an opinion writer who used the pen name Li Ping. Hundreds of the paper’s journalists have lost their jobs and live in fear of reprisals.

“It’s been an ongoing process of greater restrictions on the press in Hong Kong which accelerated over the past few months and come to a head over the past few weeks,” said Ian Cheong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore who studies authoritarianism in Asia.

“Apple Daily is emblematic of the more open and freewheeling spirit of news reporting that used to be associated with Hong Kong . . . So its closure puts a full stop to that era.”

Apple Daily’s death was seen a victory for authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing but was condemned by western governments.

Joe Biden, the US president, blamed the closure on “intensifying repression by Beijing” and called on the government to release the newspaper’s staff.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, said the national security law was “leading journalists to increasingly self-censor”.

Lam, however, accused Apple Daily of using its status as a media organisation as a “protective cover”, saying: “We are not dealing with news organisations or news reports, but acts that are suspected to endanger national security.”

Beijing was particularly furious over Apple Daily editorials, which police said encouraged governments to impose sanctions against the Hong Kong government and mainland Chinese officials following the protests. Lai also backed Donald Trump’s hardline approach towards Beijing.

The US slapped sanctions on dozens of Hong Kong and Chinese officials, forcing Lam to keep “piles of cash” in her home as banks feared violating the measures by having her as a customer.

Rival newspapers were also unsympathetic. Ming Pao, a Chinese-language newspaper, accused Apple Daily of “political mobilisation” unbecoming of a traditional news organisation. A front page of the South China Morning Post asked: “Was Apple Daily a defender of freedoms or defiler of national sovereignty?”

Many journalists believe authorities could extend their crackdown beyond Apple Daily. Chris Yeung, a senior journalist at CitizenNews, a Hong Kong news organisation, said the prosecutions had made reporters worry that their reporting or interviews could leave them in jail. “Anything feels like it could happen, that’s very worrying,” he said.

In the final hours at the Apple Daily newsroom, journalists scrambled to report on the end of the newspaper.

“There were colleagues crying, there were people taking photos with one another, and some others were still working very hard to the last moment,” said one reporter.

Ingrid Tse, a 25-year-old journalist who just joined the company, said reporters stayed in the office until 6am on Thursday morning, drinking, eating and commiserating.

When the last paper was sent to print, everyone gathered in the middle of the office and shouted congratulations to the editors. “Even at this moment I still cannot accept that it’s all over,” she said.