Prosecutors alleged the children’s books portrayed authorities as wolves and Hong Kong residents as sheep, implicating a vulnerable population at the mercy of a brutal regime. In written submissions, they said the books hinted at political unrest and portrayed China as “ruled by a cruel dictator”. The cartoons “indoctrinated” readers with a separatist ideology, they told the court.
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The backdrop to the case is political tension in Hong Kong in recent years, fueled by local opposition to China’s encroachment and what many see as Beijing’s failure to honor its promises to preserve the autonomy of the city. Pro-democracy protests in 2019 were crushed by riot police, before China imposed a draconian national security law that criminalizes a slew of dissent with penalties up to and including life in prison. perpetuity. Democracy activists have been imprisoned or fled into exile.
The five creators – Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Fong Tsz-ho – have pleaded not guilty to the charge of conspiring to publish, print, distribute, display or reproduce seditious material under the colonial-era law. They did, however, admit to portraying social issues in their fables about sheep and wolves in media interviews.
The first book showed sheep resisting wolves’ attempts to take over their village. The second featured the story of a dozen sheep who tried to escape wolves, in apparent reference to 12 people who were captured at sea by Chinese authorities in August 2020 as they tried to flee Hong Kong. A third book alludes 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 young people more tactfully…what is going on in society, [and] we argue that it is a legitimate and useful purpose for expressing events in society,” Peter Wong, a lawyer for the defendants, said at an earlier hearing.
In his closing remarks, Wong cited interviews in local media in which Lai, one of the creators, said that she wanted to raise awareness of political events and that “using fables and fairy tales” made it easier for children to understand.
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In a media summary, Judge Kwok Wai-kin wrote that the Crimes Ordinance’s restrictions on seditious acts on the rights to freedom of expression and publication “are necessary to protect national security” and the public order, and that “they do not impose restrictions more than necessary.
“Seditious intent arises not just from words,” but from words intended to cause certain effects in the mind of a child, the verdict said. “It is clear from the structure of each book that children’s thinking must be guided in a particular way as the story is told.”
The defendants are expected to be sentenced on Saturday.
The sedition law 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 territory was ceded to China in 1997 , but since the passage of the security law in 2020, authorities have arrested about 60 people under expanded sedition 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 children’s books case, the appeals court had denied the speech therapists’ request to challenge a lower court’s repeated refusal to grant them bail.
Eric Lai, a legal scholar at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, said Hong Kong’s laws are “militarized by the authorities to suppress all anti-government speech and forces in society”.
Wednesday’s verdict showed the city’s laws “reverted back to early colonial times”, he said, adding that India had recently suspended its sedition law pending a ruling. review and that Britain abolished its sedition law in 2009 because it is “too easy to use as a tool for political prosecution.
Beijing’s crackdown 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 and disturbing public order. He was intercepted by police on his way to cover an assignment, according to his employer, local media Channel C HK.