Space for free expression in Hong Kong continues to shrink. On Wednesday, a judge convicted five speech therapists of sedition after they published a series of illustrated children’s books. On Saturday, the judge sentenced each of them to 19 months in prison. The books contained cartoons depicting sheep and wolves, as part of fables representing political events in the city, which the judge deemed a conscious attempt to “indoctrinate” children into separatism and incite “hatred” against Beijing. This punishment also reflects the government’s growing use of sedition charges to stifle critical expression and restrict literary speech containing indirect commentary on politics. Kelly Ho from the Hong Kong Free Press reported on the sentencing and the defiant tone in the courtroom:
District Judge Kwok Wai-kin meted out jail terms to Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Fong Tsz-ho on Saturday, three days after he found them guilty of conspiring to print, publish, distribute and display three books with seditious intent between June 2020 and July 2021.
[…] When handing down the sentence, judge Kwok said what the speech therapists did with the illustrated books was “in effect brainwashing” young readers.
[…] “I do not regret my choice, and I hope I can stand on the side of the sheep from the beginning till the end. My only regret is I did not get to publish more illustrated books before being arrested,” [Melody Yeung] told the court. [Source]
The five speech therapists are all under 30 years old and have remained in custody since their arrests in July 2021. They were part of the now-disbanded General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, and chose not to testify during the trial or summon any witnesses when proceedings began this July. Theodora Yu from The Washington Post described the contents of the three books they published:
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. [Source]
The judiciary viewed their books in a more nefarious light. According to the judge’s 67-page-long verdict, the defendants “indoctrinated” readers with separatism, incited “anti-Chinese sentiment,” “degraded” lawful arrests and prosecution, and “intensified” conflict between Hong Kong and China. During the two-month trial, prosecutors argued that a sedition offense is like “treason.” Sum Lok-kei from The Guardian described how the judge decided that publication of the books constituted sedition:
Prosecutors said the animals were analogies for Hong Kong residents and mainland Chinese respectively, and were intended to incite hatred towards the latter. The defence argued that the books’ content was open to interpretation and that they did not call for armed rebellion against the government.
But in his verdict, the judge Kwok Wai-kin, who is on a panel of national security judges selected by the city’s leader, wrote that the books were written in a way to guide the mind of readers, and that the publishers did not recognise Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.
“The seditious intention stems not merely from the words, but from the words with the proscribed effects intended to result in the mind of children,” Kwok wrote. “Children will be led into belief that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] 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.” [Source]
Activists and legal experts criticized the judge’s decision to punish the five speech therapists. “In today’s Hong Kong, you can go to jail for publishing children’s books with drawings of wolves and sheep. These ‘sedition’ convictions are an absurd example of the disintegration of human rights in the city,” said Amnesty International’s China campaigner Gwen Lee, who added, “Writing books for children is not a crime, and attempting to educate children about recent events in Hong Kong’s history does not constitute an attempt to incite rebellion.” Thomas E Kellogg, executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University, said the speech therapists’ case represented “a significant expansion of the category of seditious speech . . . [as it] criminalizes speech that comments indirectly on politics,” adding that jail time “for peaceful artistic or literary speech with a political tinge is pretty stiff.” Tommy Walker from VOA reported on other critical reactions to the sedition punishment:
“The seditious publication case today marked the era of which the court is rolling back to colonial times as it punishes political dissidents for nonviolent speeches, which is not acceptable under international standards of free expression,” [Eric Yan-ho Lai, a law analyst and fellow at Georgetown University in Washington,] told VOA.
Lai added it was disappointing that the courts had not heeded a recent U.N. Human Rights Committee report that had asked the Hong Kong government to repeal the sedition law.
“The conviction certainly undermines the expert opinion from international human rights scholars and jurists, and further depreciates the Hong Kong government’s commitment to the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Lai said. [Source]
Commenting on the case, Human Rights Watch described how the Hong Kong government has expanded the use of sedition charges to stifle civil society under the guise of national security:
Hong Kong authorities invoked the sedition law for the first time in July 2020, shortly after Beijing imposed the draconian National Security Law (NSL) on the city in June 2020. The Hong Kong government has charged 38 people and 4 media companies under the law. Those charged include journalists, academics, a radio show host, people who distributed pro-independence flyers, and those who clapped during the trial of a pro-democracy activist.
Although sedition is not a crime under the National Security Law, Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal ruled in December 2021 that it is an offense endangering national security. The court extended the National Security Law implementing rules to sedition cases, including sweeping police investigatory powers and a higher standard for bail. Following that court decision, sedition arrests jumped.
The Hong Kong government may have regularized the sedition law in its legal arsenal to penalize minor speech offenses, Human Rights Watch said. The law defines “seditious” in very broad terms and provides a low threshold for conviction, so long as the court is satisfied that a speech or publication intends to cause “hatred or contempt” against the government, “raise discontent,” or “promote feelings of ill-will” among Hong Kong residents. [Source]
This is not the first instance of Chinese authorities cracking down on publishers for children’s books deemed to endanger national security or harm the country’s image. In August of last year, Beijing banned foreign textbooks from primary and middle schools in order to better “reflect the state’s will,” in a move that coincided with government guidelines to incorporate “Xi Jinping Thought” in school curriculums. This June, the Ministry of Education ordered a nationwide investigation into textbooks at all levels after a social media uproar over illustrations in elementary school math textbooks that some claimed were inappropriate and anti-China. (Earlier this week, Hong Kong’s Education Bureau updated its curriculum guide for primary schools to recommend that they spend one-fourth of their study time on patriotism and national security education.) In the past, government regulators have punished producers of animated cartoons for children for creating content that failed to “advocate social morality and family virtues.” In a report for the Associated Press in February, Huizhong Wu detailed a particularly extreme example in which the Chinese government—employing legal logic similar to this week’s conviction in Hong Kong—sentenced a Uyghur man to death for textbooks, drawn partly from historical resistance movements, that had previously been accepted by mainland publishing authorities:
Sattar Sawut, a Uyghur official who headed the Xinjiang Education Department, was sentenced to death, a court announced last April, saying he led a separatist group to create textbooks filled with ethnic hatred, violence and religious extremism that caused people to carry out violent acts in ethnic clashes in 2009.
[…] Details about the textbooks were then presented in a documentary by CGTN, the overseas arm of state broadcaster CCTV, on what it called hidden threats in Xinjiang in a 10-minute segment. It included what amounted to on-camera confessions by Sawut and another former education official, Alimjan Memtimin, who got a life sentence.
[…] Drawings from the textbooks are presented as evidence Sawut led others to incite hatred between Uyghurs and China’s majority Han population. [Source]
[Updated at 06:13 PDT on September 10, 2022: On September 10, 2022, the five speech therapists were each sentenced to 19 months in prison.]