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HONG KONG — The children’s books featured cartoons of sheep and wolves. But on the brightly illustrated pages, Hong Kong authorities saw a sinister plot against the government – so they condemned the publishers of sedition.
The sentencing of five children’s book producers on Wednesday underscores China’s ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression in Hong Kong. The makers, all speech therapists affiliated with a deregistered trade union, risk up to two years in prison. They have been detained and denied bail for more than a year on national security grounds.
Prosecutors alleged that the children’s books depicted authorities as wolves and Hong Kong people as sheep, implying a vulnerable population at the mercy of a brutal regime. In written contributions, they said the books alluded to political unrest and portrayed China as “ruled by a brutal dictator.” The cartoons “indoctrinated” readers with a separatist ideology, they told the court.
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The background to the case is political tension in Hong Kong in recent years, fueled by local opposition to China’s advance and what many saw as Beijing’s failure to deliver on promises to preserve the city’s autonomy. Pro-democracy protests in 2019 were crushed by riot police, before China imposed a draconian national security law that criminalized a range of dissent with sentences of up to life in prison. Democratic activists have been jailed or fled into exile.
The five creators — Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Fong Tsz-ho — pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to publish, print, distribute, display, or reproduce incendiary material under colonial-era law. However, they have admitted to portraying social issues in their fables about sheep and wolves in media interviews.
The first book showed how sheep resisted the wolves’ attempts to take over their village. The second featured a story of a dozen sheep trying to escape the wolves, a clear reference to 12 people captured at sea by Chinese authorities in August 2020 while trying to flee Hong Kong. A third book hinted at the Hong Kong government’s initial reluctance to close the border with China at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
“The purpose of the books was to tell young people in a more tactful way… what is going on in society, [and] we argue that this is a legitimate and useful purpose in expressing events in society,” said Peter Wong, a lawyer for the defendants, at an earlier hearing.
In the closing entries, Wong cited interviews in local media in which Lai, one of the creators, said she wanted to raise awareness of political events and that “using fables and fairy tales” allowed children to understand it more easily.
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In a media summary, Judge Kwok Wai-kin wrote that the incitement restrictions imposed by the Crimes Ordinance on the right to freedom of expression and publication are “necessary for the protection of national security” and public order, and that “Don’t impose more restrictions on them than necessary.”
“The incendiary intent does not arise from the words alone,” but from words intended to cause certain effects in a child’s mind, the verdict said. “It’s obvious from the structure of any book that the kids’ minds have to be guided in a certain way when the story is told.”
The suspects are expected to be sentenced on Saturday.
The Sedition Act was previously used by the British colonial administration of Hong Kong against activists involved in pro-Beijing riots in 1967. It was little seen in the years after the area was handed over to China in 1997, but since its adoption of the security law in 2020, authorities have arrested about 60 people under extensive incitement provisions, according to Human Rights Watch. In July, Koo Sze-yiu, a veteran activist, was sentenced to nine months in prison for attempted sedition.
In the case of the children’s books, the Court of Appeal had rejected the speech therapists’ request to challenge a lower court’s repeated refusal to grant them bail.
Eric Lai, a lawyer at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, said Hong Kong’s laws are “used by the authorities to suppress all anti-government speeches and forces in society.”
Wednesday’s verdict showed the city’s laws “go back to early colonial times,” he said, adding that India recently suspended its sedition law pending a review and Britain abolished its sedition law in 2009 because it is “too easy to be used as a tool for political persecution.”
Beijing’s repression of Hong Kong has led to an exodus of residents and has raised growing doubts about the city’s future as an international hub.
Also on Wednesday, the head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Ronson Chan, was arrested for obstructing police officers and disrupting public order. He was intercepted by police on his way to an assignment, according to his employer, local outlet Channel C HK.