Following a tightening of civil liberties in the Chinese territory, five speech therapists in Hong Kong were found guilty on Wednesday of conspiring to publish seditious children’s books. Rights advocates claim this case represents a significant blow to free speech. The accusations center on a series of picture books depicting a village of sheep fighting off wolves trying to invade their home. Government prosecutors claim that this plot was designed to incite disdain for the local government and Beijing’s government of China.
The court found references to the case where 12 Hong Kong activists attempted to flee the city to Taiwan as fugitives but were caught by Chinese law enforcement. In one book, the wolves tried to take over a village and eat the sheep. In another, 12 sheep are forced to leave their town after being targeted by the wolves.
A Hong Kong District Court judge sided with the prosecution in a decision on Wednesday, stating that he believed the images to be related to local happenings and concluding that the authors intended to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection” against either the local or central governments, or both.
Judge Kwok Wai Kin wrote in a 67-page document outlining his reasoning for the verdict, “By identifying (the People’s Republic of China) government as the wolves. The children will believe that (the PRC government) is coming to Hong Kong with the wicked intention of taking away their home and ruining their happy life with no right to do so at all.”
Kwok wrote in his decision that the publishers of the books “clearly refuse to acknowledge that (China) has resumed exercising sovereignty over (Hong Kong),” referring to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, a former British colony, to Chinese rule. The case, which coincides with a broader crackdown on civil liberties as part of Beijing’s response to massive, months-long anti-government protests in 2019, has emerged as a stand-in for looming questions about the limits of freedom of expression in the city.
Those protests, brought on by a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be tried for crimes committed in another country, grew into a more significant pro-democracy movement connected to public anxiety over Beijing’s expanding influence in the semi-autonomous city.
The accused, who were all executive council members of the General Union of the Hong Kong Speech Therapists, which is no longer in existence, were defended by saying that the accusations against them were unconstitutional because they conflicted with the freedoms of expression guaranteed by Hong Kong law.
But Kwok, who is also a select group of judges chosen by the mayor of the city to hear cases involving national security, rejected that argument, stating that some restrictions on freedom of expression were for the protection of both public order and national security.
Kwok refuted the defense’s claim that the books were mere fables endorsing universal values in a document outlining the reasons for the guilty verdict, citing a foreword in one of the books that allude to an “anti-legislation movement” in 2019 and the “One Country, Two Systems” framework that governs Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland.
According to public broadcaster RTHK, sentencing is scheduled for this coming Saturday. The defendants, who have been held without bail since their arrests in July 2021, could receive a sentence of up to two years in prison. Aged 25 to 28, Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan, and Marco Fong all entered not-guilty pleas. Following their arrest, police accused the group in a Tweet of “sugarcoating protesters’ unlawful acts” and “glorifying fugitives fleeing,”
with officials expressing particular concerns, given that the group’s intended audience was children. This brought the case into the public eye. Beijing and local authorities have made an effort to boost national education in local curricula as one way to inspire national pride among Hong Kong youth. Rights advocates have expressed outrage over the verdict. In a statement, Human Rights Watch charged that the Hong Kong administration was “punishing minor speech offenses” under the “comprehensive” sedition law.
According to Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, “Hong Kong people used to read about the absurd prosecution of people in mainland China for writing political allegories, but this is now happening in Hong Kong.
” The five authors of children’s books should have their convictions overturned, and Hong Kong authorities should stop this sharp decline in freedoms. The colonial-era sedition law in Hong Kong was also urged to be repealed in July by the UN Human Rights Committee, which expressed concern that it might use to restrict citizens’ “legitimate right to freedom of speech.”
The government responded by stating that it was “not intended to silence the expression of any opinion that is only genuine criticism against the government based on objective facts.” Along with Beijing’s 2020 introduction of a National Security Law to Hong Kong, which targets secession, subversion, cooperation with foreign forces, and terrorist activities and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, the law—part of a 1938 Crimes Ordinance—has been revived.
A court determined last year that specific provisions of the original sedition law that made mention of the monarch could be changed to make mention of the federal government or the Hong Kong government. A conviction carries a sentence of up to two years. Among other recent cases, a 75-year-old activist who had planned to demonstrate against the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this year was given a nine-month prison sentence. Two men were detained last month on suspicion of breaking the law concerning a Facebook group they are alleged to have managed.