Hong Kong National Security Police have arrested two men for possessing children’s books deemed seditious by authorities – in the latest in a series of moves that underscore the state of civil liberties in the city.
The pair, aged 38 and 50, were arrested and detained after police and customs officers raided their homes and offices and found copies of ‘seditious publications’ which allegedly ‘incited hatred or contempt’ against the Chinese and Hong Kong governments and the judiciary, according to a police statement quoted in local media.
Police also alleged that the books were “seditious publications likely to incite others to use violence and disobey the law”, adding that they were linked to a concluded sedition trial.
Chinese-language newspaper Mingpao reported that the publications were sent from Britain to Hong Kong and were several copies of illustrated children’s books in a series that portrayed Hong Kongers during the 2019 unrest as sheep trying to defend their village. against wolves, an apparent reference to the mainland Chinese authorities.
Both men have been released on bail but are due to report to police next month, Mingpao quoted police as saying on Wednesday.
The books were found by a court to be seditious in a high-profile trial in 2022, in which five speech therapists were jailed for 19 months for “conspiracy to publish, distribute and display three books with seditious intent”.
Police warned parents at the time to destroy the books because they were “too radical and instilled in children the ideas to confront and oppose the government”.
The convictions used a colonial-era sedition offense that authorities rolled out alongside the national security law imposed by Beijing to root out dissent.
One title, The 12 Heroes of Sheep Village, apparently refers to a failed attempt by 12 protesters to flee Hong Kong in 2020. They were arrested and tried in China for illegally crossing the border.
The arrests of the two men would be the first time that police have detained citizens for possession of books deemed “seditious” by authorities. This has sparked widespread unease, as a senior National Security Police official said at the time of the speech therapists’ arrest in 2021 that he “didn’t see a problem” with simply possessing these publications.
But this time, the police press release states that “possession of seditious publications is a serious crime” which can result in one year’s imprisonment in initial convictions and two years in subsequent convictions.
Sedition cases are overseen by national security-designated judges, and defendants charged under colonial-era legislation also face a stricter national security bail assessment. The sedition law prohibits incitement to violence, disaffection and other offenses against the administration.
The National Security Police had already made several arrests over the past week. A 23-year-old woman was arrested last Wednesday for allegedly posting online messages advocating for Hong Kong independence. Veteran workers’ rights activist Elizabeth Tang was arrested last Thursday on suspicion of ‘collusion with foreign forces’ after she returned from Britain to visit her husband, Lee Cheuk-yan, an opposition MP, in prison.
The National Security Law, imposed by China to stamp out months-long and sometimes violent anti-government protests that began in 2019, provides penalties as severe as life imprisonment for crimes such as secession, subversion , terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
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