George Orwell rolls over in his grave as five members behind a children’s book series are arrested for sedition in Hong Kong. Sedition can be defined as “conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or ruler”. But when editor and authoritarian are one, anything that portrays authority negatively is thrown out, while the writers are thrown in jail without a second thought. While Orwell is praised, Hong Kongers are vilified for metaphors and illustrations that educate on the dark history authoritarians have been trying to suppress. The five recent arrests were people from the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, as they were the leaders in a series of controversial children’s books. Unfortunately, the Hong Kong 5 are only the first in a long line to come as China cracks down on free speech and sedition nationwide.
Hong Kong’s new national security police unit is spearheading a swift crackdown on multiple forms of dissent. In their most recent power play, the police seized around 550 copies of children’s books, leaflets, computers, and mobile phones during a raid on The General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists. The police also froze the organizations’ H.K.$160,000 in assets after arresting the chairperson, deputy chair people, secretary, and treasurer.
According to the police, the two men and three women between the ages of 25 and 28 had “conspired to publish, distribute, exhibit or copy seditious publications”.
China has had a thinly veiled problematic past with violating citizen’s freedom of speech under the guise of sedition. Until last year, sedition was not directly used since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China. But, as tensions rise within China, as well as between China and other countries, the colonial-era law of sedition is increasingly popularized and is continually used to clamp down on different political views and any perceptions that could be Anti-China or Pro-democracy.
With national security concerns supposedly on the rise, sedition cases are being used to uphold national security and put a stop to the “inciting of violence” and dissent among those in Hong Kong.
Guardians of Sheep Village
Guardian’s of Sheep Village is the title of the first book in the controversial children’s series that was seized by the Chinese police. Each book follows around a group of sheep meant to symbolize people in Hong Kong. Each book also depicts the authorities as wolves who look over the sheep and punish them if they step out of line.
The first book makes an effort to explain the 2019 pro-democracy protests that swept through Hong Kong. The illustrations show sheep as democracy supporters living in a village surrounded by wolves. The solidarity within the sheep makes them strong and empowered even though they are not a physical match to wolves that corralled them.
Senior Superintendent Steve Li stated the sheep were intended to represent protestors who fought against riot police in 2019 and that the book “beautified bad behavior” and “poisoned children’s impressionable minds”.
Janitors of Sheep Village
Janitors of Sheep Village is the second book in the series, where village cleaners go on strike to force out the wolves who litter everywhere.
The story of unionization and righteous strikes references the medical workers’ strike last year. At the time, Hong Kong workers wanted to close the border with mainland China at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Through illustrated animals and simple wording, the children’s book actively educated children on the rights of workers, the power of unity, and their own untold history that continues to be stifled. Notedly, none of which contains any call to action that incites punishment, retaliation, or violence.
And yet, the police have stated that “the public’s – and especially young children’s – hatred towards Hong Kong’s government and judiciary [will] incite violence and illegal acts,”. However, if the public’s knowledge of current events immediately sparks concerns over dissent, then perhaps the problem lies within normalized maltreatment and unjust authoritarians over the reactions of the public.
The 12 Braves of Sheep Village
The third book and final book mentioned above, follows everyone’s favorite pro-democracy sheep flee their village from unjust wolves. This book of 12 sheep is a direct reference to 12 Hong Kongers who fled to Taiwan last year by speedboat to outrun Chinese police.
In 2020, Hong Kong police imposed Beijing’s national security law that immediately halted freedom of speech for many writers, artists, and activists alike. Many activists voiced their concerns about the elimination of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in one fell swoop. Unsurprisingly, hundreds were arrested following their dissent which forced 12 Hong Kong activists to leave their life behind if they wanted a say in their future.
These 12 people, now known as the Hong Kong 12 fled the city on a boat, hoping to reach Taiwan. However, these activists were found, fined, and jailed by the Chinese Coastguard before they made it to their destination.
In the book, the fluffy white sheep were harassed by wolves who tore down their houses. After months of maltreatment, the sheep finally try to flee by boat to rid themselves of the wolves but they are captured and sent to prison.
Although activists and Hong Kongers silently support the publication that is making sure the stories of those in Hong Kong are getting told, members of the police believe the writers “abused their profession” to indoctrinate children with anti-government views to incite violent behavior.
However, rather than incite violence, seekers of the truth are merely trying to incite education and fully formed knowledge of events rather than the biased information actively coursing through common curricula. When speaking of education is it integral that children are taught not just what makes their country look best but what actually happened. This should be said to many countries around the world, as textbooks and curriculums are often tailored as highlight reels rather than accurate depictions of history.
The Union of speech therapists notes, “ In Hong Kong right now, the powerless are the unheard, and their voices are not being listened to,” the union wrote in its manifesto. “We are a group of speech therapists, and we should walk with the unheard.”
Increased efforts to stifle the freedom of speech
Another example of the rise in arrests is evident in the four senior editors and executives of Apple Daily who were recently arrested, arraigned, and denied bail. Apple daily is a pro-democracy newspaper that was forced to close last month as all of the decision-makers were detained. These arrests follow suit of the ones before them as Hong Kong’s most prominent opposition politicians sleep not so soundly in their adjacent jail cells.
Freedom of speech is increasingly important, as voices are being stifled across Hong Kong. Books traditionally combat school-regulated indoctrination but, it is getting harder to keep the record straight when opposers and freedom fighters are repeatedly jailed for their efforts towards a more transparent future.
Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) official Wong Nai-Yun spoke out against the case of the seditious sheep, explaining that even metaphors were no longer safe from the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s crackdown on speech crimes.
“But the national security police keep moving the red lines, so there is less and less room for public expression by citizens,” he said. “Under such circumstances, we never know exactly where the red lines will be.”
With these ever-increasing restrictions in mind, the road to free dissent is going to be a difficult one. But, the masses have not lost hope as they continue to fight for their freedom of speech. As Wong Nai-Yun stated, “All we can do is keep on doing what we think is right,” and one day, that will hopefully be enough.