Democrats were portrayed in books as sheep against wolves – Copyright AFP ISAAC LAWRENCE
On Wednesday, five Hong Kong trade unionists were found guilty of sedition for publishing a series of illustrated children’s books that portrayed urban democracy advocates as sheep protecting their village from wolves.
These convictions are the latest in a colonial-era sedition case that the authorities used along with a new national security law to stamp out dissent.
The accusation focused on union members of speech therapists who released three illustrated e-books designed to explain Hong Kong’s democracy movement to children.
In one book called The Defenders of the Sheep Village, a group of wolves attempt to take over the village of sheep, who fight back and drive off the attackers.
In another, wolves are depicted as dirty and bringing disease to the sheep village.
Lai Man-ling, Melody Yung, Sydney Ng, Samuel Chan and Fong Zuo, all founding members of the union, were charged with sedition and held in prison for more than a year before being sentenced.
After a two-month trial, Kwok Wai-kin, a district court judge appointed by the government to hear national security cases, convicted the five of conspiring to distribute insurgent content.
“The seditious intent stems not only from words, but also from words with forbidden effects designed to influence the minds of children,” Kwok wrote in his verdict.
“Children will be led to believe that the government of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) is coming to Hong Kong with the evil intent to take away their home and destroy their happy life, without any right to do so,” he added.
– “Ruthless Repression” –
Amnesty International, which recently left Hong Kong over the national security law, called the convictions “an absurd example of ruthless repression.”
“Writing books for children is not a crime, and trying to educate children about recent events in Hong Kong history is not an attempt at sedition,” said Amnesty China campaigner Gwen Lee.
During the trial, prosecutors alleged that the books contained “anti-Chinese sentiment” and were intended to “incite readers’ hatred of mainland authorities.”
They also said the books are meant to encourage Hong Kongers to discriminate against “Mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong”.
The defense argued that the crime of sedition was vaguely defined and that each reader should be allowed to form their own opinion about what the characters in the books represent.
They also warned that a guilty verdict would lead to further criminalization of political criticism and would have a chilling effect on society.
– Political suppression –
Until recently, Hong Kong has been a bastion of free speech in China and home to a vibrant and outspoken publishing industry.
But Beijing unleashed a wide-ranging political crackdown on the city in response to large-scale and sometimes violent democratic protests three years ago.
Sedition was originally a British colonial-era law and carries a penalty of up to two years in prison.
Until recently, it had not been used for decades.
But over the past two years, it has been adopted by police and prosecutors, along with a national security law that Beijing introduced in Hong Kong in 2020.
The pro-democracy movement, once popular in the city, has since been liquidated.
Most prominent local democracy activists are either in jail, awaiting trial or have fled abroad.
Dozens of civil society groups, including several labor unions, closed down, and a mainland-style censorship rule was imposed on the film industry.
Books were removed from libraries and curricula rewritten by authorities ordered to instill patriotism in urban children.
Only people deemed “staunch patriots” can now run for office.
Even before the latest crackdown, publishing had become a key target for the Chinese authorities.
In 2015, five Hong Kong publishers who owned a bookstore that produced obscene volumes about Chinese Communist Party leaders went missing before being re-arrested on the mainland.
The missing bookseller case was itself a partial catalyst for the 2019 Democratic protests, which began as a movement against a law allowing extradition to the mainland’s party-controlled judiciary.