National security law: Hong Kong police arrest 5 for allegedly conspiring to distribute seditious children’s books
- The group, leaders of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, are accused of conspiring to incite hatred against the government, instigate violence
- Aged 25 to 28, the five were arrested in a series of raids across the city just after daybreak
Hong Kong national security police arrested five people on Thursday for publishing a series of allegedly seditious children’s books, accusing the group of inciting anti-government hatred and instigating violence.
The suspects – two men and three women – are members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, one of dozens of organisations emerging in 2019 to sustain that year’s anti-government protests.
They have been accused of conspiracy to publish and circulate seditious publications between June 2020 and March this year in connection with a picture book series about sheep defending their village from invading wolves.
Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah, of the force’s National Security Department, said the suspects were aged 25 to 28 and held the roles of group chairman, deputy chairman, secretary and treasurer and committee member.
They were picked up just after daybreak in a series of citywide raids, in which officers seized more than 550 children’s books and a large quantity of promotional leaflets, along with computers and mobile phones. Police have frozen HK$160,000 in bank accounts belonging to the group.
Li said the union had published three children’s books from the same series that contained seditious material, adding it was clear Hongkongers represented the sheep and the wolves depicted people from mainland China.
“They used simple and eye-catching cartoons in this series of the books to simplify their political agenda for children to understand. They also beautified illegal activities such as the acts of rioters in the anti-government protests and glorified the 12 fugitives ... with the intent to poison children,” Li said, referring to the dozen captured at sea last year as they attempted to flee to Taiwan to avoid charges in Hong Kong.
“From a legal perspective, their [the union’s] intention was to instigate hatred among the public, especially children, towards the Hong Kong government and the administration of justice, as well as to incite the use of violence and disobedience of the law.”
One of the stories, Li said, alluded to industrial action staged by Hong Kong health workers in February last year – at the start of the coronavirus crisis – in an attempt to pressure the government into closing the border with the mainland over fears infections would spread to the city.
Li said the book presented the sheep as clean while the wolves were dirty and “causing health problems everywhere”, adding: “It suggests the virus is brought [by the mainlanders] across the border.”
The speech therapists’ union, founded in November 2019 at the height of the social unrest, states its mission as defending justice, uniting the industry and fighting for Hongkongers’ rights.
Its book series under investigation focuses on the struggle between a village of sheep and a group of intruding wolves.
The first of the trio, “12 Warriors of Sheep Village”, tells the story of 12 sheep escaping persecution only to end up detained in the wolves’ village, which Li said was referencing the case of the dozen Hong Kong fugitives and an attempt by publishers to “incite hatred towards the administrative authority”.
Another, “Sweepers of Sheep Village”, refers to the sheep launching a general strike to stop the wolves from entering and littering their village, while the third, “Guardians of Sheep Village”, recounts the flock having to defend their homes in the absence of the shepherd.
Li, the senior superintendent, said the union also held a bookstore storytelling session last month attended by more than 10 parents and their children.
“They allegedly promoted fallacies and incited hatred through discussing and reading one of the books,” Li said.
They were drawing on the propaganda of Hong Kong’s anti-government movement when describing during the session how the wolves were looking to occupy the whole village and eat all the sheep, according to Li.
He said books were aimed at children and could shape their moral view of the city.
“They may think that breaking the law is OK according to these books. The damage from that is huge. This is our major concern,” he said.
Li said police needed to investigate whether those who printed such materials did so knowing the content was seditious.
The senior officer said he did not believe it was illegal to possess one of the books in question, but he appealed to parents to discard any copies.
A police source the force’s National Security Department was seeking authorisation from the security secretary to remove related messages on the union’s website.
“The public should be aware of the truth. They must not tolerate or glorify violence and must not allow the next generation to be instigated by false and distorted information and go astray,” police said in a statement.
The force said the investigation was ongoing and further arrests were possible.
An executive member of an opposition trade union, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said organisations such as his “are now the targets of the government”.
He pointed to the administration’s previously publicised plan to hire a principal officer at the Labour Department to oversee national security issues.
“What these arrests have demonstrated is a new tendency to criminalise even analogies and metaphors in writing, which are common in classics such as 1984 and Animal Farm,” the union member added, referring to the works of the late British author George Orwell.
Such tactics, he added, might snuff out any remaining dissenting voices speaking out against the government and its policies.
Additional reporting by Chris Lau