A Hong Kong court has convicted five speech therapists of sedition after they published a series of illustrated children’s books about cartoon animals, in a case critics say highlights tightening restriction on freedoms in the Chinese city.
The disbanded General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, an industry group, in 2020 and 2021 published stories about a “sheep village” that was bullied and attacked. Prosecutors alleged the stories were allegories that amounted to “indoctrinating” children to support separatism and hatred of Beijing.
The speech therapists face up to two years in prison, with sentencing expected on September 10.
“Seditious intention stems not merely from the words, but from the words with the proscribed effects intended to result in the mind of children” said Hong Kong district judge Kwok Wai-kin as he handed down his verdict on Wednesday.
The therapists’ defence lawyers had argued the offence charged was “unconstitutional on the ground that it is inconsistent with their freedom of expression, speech and publication”.
The case has been seen as a sign of vanishing freedoms in the financial hub since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020 following mass pro-democracy protests the previous year. Hong Kong courts have taken an increasingly tough line against democracy activists.
Media mogul Jimmy Lai, the 74-year-old founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, lost a bid last week to prevent national security officers from searching his mobile phones, including journalistic materials, a decision that could be a precedent for other cases. Lai was recently denied a jury trial.
A non-jury trial was also ordered for 47 opposition politicians accused of subversion in connection with attempts to select candidates to run in an election for the Legislative Council, the city’s de facto parliament, two years ago. Many in the group have been held in custody since 2021 and 29 of them have indicated they would plead guilty.
Thomas E Kellogg, executive director of the Centre for Asian Law at Georgetown University, said the speech therapists’ case represented “a significant expansion of the category of seditious speech . . . [as it] criminalises speech that comments indirectly on politics”.
One of the books was said to depict the capture and detention by Chinese authorities of 12 Hong Kong activists who tried to flee the city by boat two years ago. The other two books involved allegories of the 2019 protests and a strike by local medical workers who wanted officials to shut the borders with mainland China at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The possible sentence of two years in prison “for peaceful artistic or literary speech with a political tinge is pretty stiff”, Kellogg said.
During a visit to Hong Kong in July to mark the 1997 handover of the territory from British to Chinese rule, Chinese president Xi Jinping hailed “patriots” for bringing order to the territory.
Also on Wednesday, Ronson Chan, chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, was arrested for allegedly obstructing a police officer and causing disorder in a public place.
Chan was arrested while covering a news event, according to Channel C HK, the online media outlet where he is deputy assignment editor. He had earlier revealed he planned to leave Hong Kong in late September to attend a journalism programme in the UK.
Chan and the journalists’ association have been under attack from pro-Beijing figures and media who have labelled them “anti-government”.