Hong Kong judge sentences children’s book authors to sedition (Update: 19-month sentence)

The space for free expression in Hong Kong continues to shrink. On Wednesday, a judge sentenced five speech therapists for sedition after publishing a series of illustrated children’s books. On Saturday, the judge sentenced each of them to 19 months in jail. The books contained cartoons depicting sheep and wolves, as part of fables depicting political events in the city, which the judge viewed as a conscious attempt to “indoctrinate” children into separatism and incite “hate” against Beijing. This punishment also reflects the will of the government growing use of sedition charges stifle critical expression and restrict literary discourse containing indirect comments on the policy. Kelly Ho of the Hong Kong Free Press reported condemnation and defiant tone in the courtroom:

District Judge Kwok Wai-kin handed prison terms to Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Fong Tsz-ho on Saturday, three days after convicting them of conspiracy to print, publish , to distribute and display three books with seditious intent between June 2020 and July 2021.

[…] During sentencing, Judge Kwok said what the speech therapists had done with the picture books was actually “brainwashing” young readers.

[…] “I don’t regret my choice and I hope I can stand on the side of the sheep from start to finish. My only regret is that I was not able to publish more picture books before I was arrested,” [Melody Yeung] said in court. [Source]

The five speech therapists are all under 30 and have have remained in detention since their arrest in July 2021. They were part of the now disbanded Hong Kong General Union of Speech-Language Pathologists, and chose not to testify during the trial or summon witnesses when the proceedings began in July. Theodora Yu of The Washington Post describes the contents of the three books they have published:

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. [Source]

Judiciary power saw their books in a more harmful light. According to the judge’s 67-page verdict, the defendants “indoctrinated” readers with separatism, incited “anti-China sentiment”, “degraded” arrests and legal prosecutions and “escalated” the conflict between Hong Kong and China. China. During the two-month trial, prosecutors argued that a sedition offense is like “treason.” Sum Lok-kei from The Guardian describes how the judge decided the 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 defense argued that the contents of the books were subject to interpretation and that they did not call for an armed rebellion against the government.

But in his verdict, Judge Kwok Wai-kin, who is part of a panel of national security judges selected by the city leader, wrote that the books were written in such a way as to guide the minds of readers. and that the publishers had not recognized Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.

“Seditious intent stems not just from words, but from words with proscribed effects intended to occur in the minds of children,” Kwok wrote. “Children will be led to believe that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] the government comes to Hong Kong with the evil intention to take away their home and ruin their happy life without any right to do so. [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 convictions for ‘sedition’ are an absurd example of the disintegration of human rights in the city,” said Gwen Lee, Amnesty International’s China campaigner, who added: “Writing children’s books 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 case of speech pathologists represents “a significant expansion of the category of seditious remarks. . .[as it]criminalizes speech that indirectly comments on politics,” adding that the prison sentence “for peaceful artistic or literary speech with a political tinge is quite harsh.” VOA’s Tommy Walker reported on other critical reactions to the sedition penalty:

“Today’s riotous publication case marked the era when the court reverts to the colonial era by punishing political dissidents for non-violent speech, which is not acceptable by international standards of justice. freedom of expression”, [Eric Yan-ho Lai, a law analyst and fellow at Georgetown University in Washington,] says VOA.

Lai added that it was disappointing that the courts ignored a recent report by the United Nations Human Rights Committee which called on the Hong Kong government to repeal the sedition law.

“The condemnation certainly undermines the expert opinion of international human rights scholars and lawyers, and further undermines 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 expanded the use of sedition charges to stifle civil society under the guise of national security:

Hong Kong authorities first invoked the Sedition Act in July 2020, shortly after Beijing imposed the draconian law National Security Act (NSL) on the city in June 2020. The Hong Kong government accused 38 people and 4 media companies under the law. Among those charged are journalists, academics, a radio show host, people who distributed pro-independence leaflets and people who cheered during the trial of a pro-democracy activist.

Although sedition is not a crime under 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 national security law enforcement rules to sedition cases, including expanded police investigative powers and a higher bail standard. Following this court decision, arrests for sedition jumped up.

The Hong Kong government may have regularized the sedition law in its legal arsenal to punish minor speech offences, Human Rights Watch said. The law defines “seditious” in very broad terms and provides a low threshold for conviction, as long as the court is satisfied that a speech or publication is intended to cause “hate or contempt” against the government, “raise discontent” or “promoting feelings of ill will” among Hong Kong residents. [Source]

This is not the first time that Chinese authorities have cracked down on publishers of children’s books deemed to endanger national security or damage the country’s image. In August of last year, Beijing bans foreign textbooks primary schools and colleges in order to better “reflect the will of the state”, in a movement which coincided with the directives of the government to integrating “Xi Jinping Thought” into school curricula. In June, the Ministry of Education ordered a national survey of textbooks at all levels after a social media uproar over illustrations in elementary school math textbooks that some have called inappropriate and anti-China. (Earlier this week, the Hong Kong Bureau of Education updated its curriculum guide for primary schools to recommend devote a quarter of their study time to patriotism and national security education.) In the past, government regulators have punished producers of children’s cartoons 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 similar legal logic to this week’s condemnation in Hong Kong –sentenced a Uighur to death over textbooks, drawn in part from historic resistance movements, that had previously been accepted by mainland publishing authorities:

Sattar Sawut, a Uighur official who headed Xinjiang’s education department, was sentenced to deathannounced a court last April, saying he led a separatist group to create manuals filled with ethnic hatred, violence and religious extremism that drove people to commit acts of violence during ethnic clashes in 2009.

[…] Details about the textbooks were later featured in a documentary by CGTN, the overseas arm of state broadcaster CCTV, about what it called hidden threats in Xinjiang in a 10-minute segment. It included what amounted to confessions filmed by Sawut and another former education official, Alimjan Memtimin, who was sentenced to life.

[…] The textbook drawings are presented as evidence that Sawut led others to incite hatred between Uyghurs and the majority Han population in China. [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.]

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