HONG KONG The fluffy white sheep were constantly harassed by wolves, who tore their houses, ate their food, and even sprayed them with poisonous gas. It became too much and 12 sheep who had tried to defend their village were forced to leave by boat. But they were caught and sent to prison.
This story was told in a children’s book published last year in Hong Kong. The sheep represented 12 activists arrested at sea as they tried to flee to Taiwan. The wolves were Hong Kong police.
On Thursday, police arrested five leaders of the group behind the book, a union of speech therapists, accusing them of instilling hatred of the government in children.
With the arrests, authorities expanded, to the most basic level of printed materials, a crackdown on political speech aimed at quelling dissent expressed during the mass protests in 2019.
Hours later, in another move against opposition voices, four senior editors and executives of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper that was forced to close last month, were tried and denied bail. They are accused of collaborating with foreign powers under a comprehensive national security law Beijing enacted in Hong Kong last year.
More than 100 people have been arrested under the law, including dozens of prominent Hong Kong opposition politicians.
Apple Daily, once one of the city’s largest newspapers, has been the most prominent media target targeted by the police. It closed after authorities froze its accounts and indicted its founder, Jimmy Lai, and six editors and top executives for violating security law by seeking US sanctions against Hong Kong officials. Among those six were four defendants on Thursday.
But with the arrests of members of the General Union of Speech Therapists in Hong Kong, the crackdown now includes children’s books. Police said they believed the publications were intended to incite public hatred, especially among young children, against the government and legal authorities.
Li Kwai-wah, a senior overseer in the national security policy department, told a news conference that the book and others published by the union simplified and embellished political issues that children had no way of understanding.
He added that union members had abused their profession to indoctrinate impressed children with anti-government views and incite violent and criminal behavior.
The five union members were arrested by the Hong Kong police national security department under a colonial-era law on seductive publications. A sentence under the law, which has been rarely used in recent decades, carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.
It is alarming not only for unions but also for freedom of speech as a whole, for creative works and even using metaphor or comment, said Leo Tang, vice president of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Hong Kong, an umbrella group for pro-democracy labor organizations .
The speech therapists’ union was formed in 2019, during the height of anti-government protests, when many new unions were formed in part to challenge the political power of the old working groups aligned with Beijing.
In Hong Kong now, the powerless are the deaf and their voices are not being heard, the union wrote in its manifesto. We are a group of speech therapists and we have to walk with the deaf.
The union published two other children’s books, including one in which sheep are organized to keep wolves, who are portrayed as trash and dangerous, outside their village. The book was published in early 2020, when the Hong Kong opposition camp was lobbying the government to close its border with mainland China to control the spread of the coronavirus. The group also published a reading guide and organized events for parents to read books with their children.
Police in Hong Kong, once a bastion of free speech, have increasingly been criticized for their actions. Security officials have blamed anti-government sentiment for inspiring a man who stabbed an officer and then killed himself on July 1.
Raymond Siu, who was promoted to police chief last month, has said the media bears responsibility for public anger at police. He and his predecessor, Chris Tang, who was promoted to security secretary, say they support a law to curb what they consider fake news, something the government says it is considering.
Even with the security law in place, political cartoons and protest artwork have continued to flourish on the borders in Hong Kong, but that may soon change, said Antony Dapiran, a lawyer and author of two books on protests in the city.
The fear posed by these arrests is likely to conclude that, he wrote on Twitter.
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