Hong Kong therapists guilty of sedition over cartoons of sheep and wolves

HONG KONG — The children’s books featured cartoons of sheep and wolves. But in the brightly illustrated pages, Hong Kong authorities saw a sinister plot against the government — so they convicted the publishers of sedition.

The conviction of five producers of children’s books on Wednesday highlights China’s continuing crackdown on freedom of expression in Hong Kong. The creators, all speech therapists affiliated with a deregistered union, face up to two years in prison. They have been detained for more than a year and denied bail on national security grounds.

Prosecutors alleged that the children’s books depicted the authorities as wolves and Hong Kong people as sheep, implying a vulnerable populace at the mercy of a brutal regime. In written submissions, they said the books alluded to political unrest and painted China as “ruled by a cruel dictator.” The cartoons “indoctrinated” readers with separatist ideology, they told the court.

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The backdrop to the case is the political tension in Hong Kong in recent years, fueled by local opposition to China’s encroachment and what many viewed as Beijing’s failure to honor 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 penalties of up to life imprisonment. Democracy 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 the charge of conspiracy to publish, print, distribute, display or reproduce seditious material under the colonial-era law. They have, however, admitted to depicting social issues in their fables about sheep and wolves in media interviews.

The first book showed sheep resisting the wolves’ attempts to take over their village. The second featured a tale of a dozen sheep who tried to escape the wolves, in apparent reference to 12 people who were captured at sea by Chinese authorities in August 2020 while trying to flee Hong Kong. A third book alluded to 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 youngsters in a more tactful way … what is going on in society, [and] we submit that this is a legitimate and useful purpose in expressing events in society,” Peter Wong, a lawyer for the defendants, said in an earlier hearing.

In closing submissions, Wong cited interviews in local media in which Lai, one of the creators, said she wished to raise awareness of political events and that “using fables and fairy tales” allowed children to understand more easily.

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In a media summary, Judge Kwok Wai-kin wrote that the restrictions on seditious acts imposed by the Crimes Ordinance on rights to freedoms of expression and publication “are necessary for the protection of national security” and public order, and that “they do not imposes restriction more than necessary.”

“The seditious intention stems not merely from the words,” but from words intended to cause certain effects in a child’s mind, the verdict stated. “It is patently clear from the structure of each book that the thinking of the children is to be guided in a particular way when the story is being told.”

The defendants are expected to be sentenced on Saturday.

Sedition law was previously used by Hong Kong’s British colonial administration against activists involved in pro-Beijing riots in 1967. It was little seen in the years after the territory’s 1997 handover to China, but since the security law’s passage in 2020, the authorities have arrested about 60 people under expanded edition 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 Final Appeal had rejected the speech therapists’ bid to challenge a lower court’s repeated refusal to grant them bail.

Eric Lai, a law fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, said Hong Kong’s laws are “weaponized by the authorities to repress all the anti-government speeches and forces in society.”

Wednesday’s verdict showed the city’s laws were “rolling back to the early colonial times,” he said, adding that India recently suspended its sedition law pending a review and Britain abolished its sedition law in 2009 as it is “too easy to be used as a tool for political prosecution.”

Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong has led to an exodus of residents and fueled 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 the police on his way to cover an assignment, according to his employer, local outlet Channel C HK.

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