National security police confirmed on Thursday that they had arrested five members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists over three children's books featuring sheep that are suspected of inciting hatred towards the SAR government.
At a press conference, senior superintendent Steve Li from the force’s national security department said the sheep represent Hong Kong people, while the stories also contain wolves and these are meant to be mainlanders.
The forewords in two of the books link the stories to the anti-government protests of 2019 and Li claimed the publications are aimed at glorifying violence and inciting young children to hate the government and the city's judiciary.
One book suggests that 'sheep’ can be eaten while in custody, but "that's not true at all", the senior superintendent insisted, adding "the book was simply aimed at glorifying violence and inciting hated towards the administration and the judiciary.”
Li said another story alludes to a strike held by medical workers early last year to try to pressure the government to close the border due to the pandemic.
“The book showed the sheep as being very clean and the wolves as being very dirty. It tried to accuse the mainlanders of bringing in the virus,” he said.
“The books, for example, featured the wolves as throwing rubbish and spitting all over the place. In reality, is that even true?”
Li said two men and three women aged between 25 and 28 had been arrested under the Crimes Ordinance on suspicion of conspiring to publish seditious material, and they include the union's chair and vice chair, secretary and treasurer.
He accused them of “abusing their professionalism” to promote notions such as “revenge and resistance”, and said they had been “extremely irresponsible”.
“Those publications targeted young kids aged between four and seven … that’s a very crucial age for children to develop their moral and ethical knowledge. By teaching them white is black and black is white, what will they grow up into? They may end up having criminal intentions,” he said.
"The union even organised a reading session in June where over a dozen parents brought along their young kids. That's aimed at 'poisoning' young children."
Li said HK$160,000 of the union's assets had been frozen, adding that more arrests may be made.
He also urged parents and distributors to throw away the books in question, saying nobody should possess them anymore.
When asked if political satire or cartoons critical of the government will now be considered a breach of the law, Li said people are still allowed to criticise the government.
“But while doing so, those responsible for these publications must not incite hatred against the authorities,” he stressed.
Asked if classic novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm are now illegal in Hong Kong, Li said such works are different from the children's books in question because the latter incite hatred and resentment.
The pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) said the case marks an escalation of speech crimes in Hong Kong, calling it "a death knell on the freedom of arts creation".
"Today, a children's book is defined as seditious. Tomorrow, any metaphors ... could be read as seditious words, and everyone in society is on edge," the CTU said in a statement.
"This also explains why many creators are self-censoring, pulling their works from shelves. The case again shows how the law is just being used by the authorities to spread fear."