National security police in Hong Kong on Thursday said they had arrested five members of a speech therapists' union over a series of children's books depicting "seditious" sheep, that the authorities said showed support for the 2019 protest movement and "incited hatred" towards the city's government.
The two men and three women aged 25-28 -- all of whom are members of the Hong Kong Speech Therapists General Union -- were arrested on suspicion of "conspiring to publish seditious publications," in connection with three children's picture books titled "The Guardians of Sheep Village," "The Garbage Collectors of Sheep Village" and "The 12 Heroes of Sheep Village."
National security police seized around 550 children's books, leaflets, computers and mobile phones in a morning raid on the union, arresting the chairperson, deputy chairperson, secretary and treasurer and freezing the organization's H.K.$160,000 in assets.
Senior Superintendent Steve Li said the sheep were intended to represent protesters who fought back against riot police in 2019, and depicted the authorities as wolves, "beautifying bad behavior" and "poisoning" children's impressionable minds.
One book characterizes the wolves as dirty and the sheep as clean, while another lauds the actions of heroic sheep who use their horns to fight back despite being naturally peaceful, Li said.
Police have said further arrests will likely follow.
Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) official Wong Nai-yun told RFA that the case of the seditious sheep showed that even metaphors were no longer safe from the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s crackdown on speech crimes in Hong Kong under the national security law imposed on the city on July 1, 2020.
"If even metaphors are out of bounds now, then nobody will be able to read [George Orwell's classic political allegory] ... Animal Farm," Wong said.
"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."
"All we can do is keep on doing what we think is right," Wong said.Fighting a cover-up
Superintendent Li said the books had "made it very clear" that they referred to the 2019 protest movement, and that Animal Farm "didn't incite hatred of the government."
A spokeswoman for the speech therapists' union who gave only the nickname Melody said the union had hoped to leave a public record of the 2019 protests that would be accessible to young children, to counter a wave of CCP propaganda that is currently being taught in schools as part of the government's "national security education" campaign.
"We didn't know how long this cover-up of the truth about the anti-extradition movement would go on for, and so we wanted to put something on record for this age group," Melody said.
"That way they would be able to understand what happened; children have a right to know these things," she said. "They are a part of society too, and they will be in charge of it in future."
The CTU said the case sounded "a death knell on the freedom of arts creation" in Hong Kong.
"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 union said in a statement reported by government broadcaster RTHK.
"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," it said.
In 2015, then Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying called on Hongkongers to "be more like sheep" in the wake of the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement.
In a New Year's message on the first day of the Year of the Goat, also translated as the Year of the Ram, or Sheep, Leung said the previous year had been "rife with differences" as thousands of protesters camped out on major highways in a campaign for universal suffrage in 2017.
"Last year was no easy ride for Hong Kong. Our society was rife with differences and conflicts," said Leung, who was caricatured as a wolf by protesters in 2014.
"In the coming year, I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep's character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong's future," he said. He described sheep as "widely seen to be mild and gentle animals living peacefully in groups."
Rapid rights deterioration
Dozens of former members of the pro-democracy camp in LegCo have been arrested in recent months, either for public order offenses linked to peaceful protests during the 2019 anti-extradition and pro-democracy movement, or under the national security law, which bans peaceful political opposition and public criticism of the authorities.
Observers have told RFA that changes to Hong Kong's election system imposed on the city by the CCP since the law took effect have set the city's political life back by decades, to the pre-reform colonial era in the mid-20th century.
The rule changes mean that opposition candidates are highly unlikely to be allowed to run, but even when candidates make it into the race, they will now be chosen by a tiny number of voters compared with the previous system.
Under the "one country, two systems" terms of the 1997 handover agreement, Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms of speech, association, and expression, as well as progress towards fully democratic elections and a separate legal jurisdiction.
But plans to allow extradition to mainland China sparked a city-wide mass movement in 2019 that broadened to demand fully democratic elections and an independent inquiry into police violence.
Rights groups and foreign governments have hit out at the rapid deterioration of human rights protections since the national security law was imposed.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials say the law was needed to deal with an attempt by foreign powers to foment a "color revolution" in Hong Kong.
Its sweeping provisions allowed China's feared state security police to set up a headquarters in Hong Kong, granted sweeping powers to police to search private property and require the deletion of public content, and criminalized criticism of the city government and the authorities in Beijing.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.