Hong Kong’s national security police have arrested two men for possessing children’s books deemed seditious by the authorities, in the latest of a series of moves that underline the state of civil freedoms in the city.
The two men, aged 38 and 50, were arrested and detained after police and customs officers searched their homes and offices and found copies of “seditious publications” that allegedly “incited hatred or contempt” against the Chinese and Hong Kong governments and the judiciary, according to a police press release cited in the local media.
Police also alleged that the books could “incite others into using violence and disobeying the law”, adding that they were related to a concluded sedition trial.
The Chinese-language Mingpao newspaper reported that the publications were sent from Britain to Hong Kong and included several copies of illustrated children’s books in a series that portrayed Hongkongers during the 2019 unrest as sheep trying to defend their village from wolves, an apparent reference to the mainland Chinese authorities.
The pair have been released on bail but must report to police next month, Mingpao quoted police as saying on Wednesday.
The books were ruled by a court as seditious in a high-profile trial in 2022, in which five speech therapists were jailed for 19 months for “conspiring to publish, distribute and display three books with seditious intent”.
Police warned parents at the time to destroy copies of 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 offence that authorities have deployed alongside the Beijing-imposed national security law to stamp 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 caught and tried in China for illegally crossing the border.
The arrests of the two men are believed to be the first in which police have detained citizens for possessing books deemed seditious by the authorities. It prompted widespread unease as a senior national security police official said at the time of the speech therapists’ arrests in 2021 that he “could not see a problem” with merely possessing those publications.
The police press release said the possession of seditious publications was “a serious crime” that could lead to a year of imprisonment in initial convictions and two years in subsequent convictions.
Sedition cases are overseen by designated national security judges, and defendants charged under the colonial-era legislation also face a more stringent national security bail assessment. The sedition law outlaws incitement to violence, disaffection and other offences against the administration.
National security police had already made several arrests over the past week. A 23-year-old woman was arrested last Wednesday for allegedly publishing messages online inciting Hong Kong independence. The veteran labour rights activist Elizabeth Tang was arrested last Thursday on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces” after returning from Britain to visit her husband, Lee Cheuk-yan, an opposition lawmaker, in prison.
Prof Johannes Chan, a former chair of public law at the University of Hong Kong and a visiting professor at University College London, said the arrests of the two men highlighted the vagueness of the definition of sedition charges. He said people should not be guilty of merely possessing the publications if they did not know they were seditious or did not have seditious intent.
“Otherwise, if a cartoon in [a newspaper] is considered seditious, every single reader who has kept a copy of the newspaper could be guilty of the possession offence. This could hardly be compatible with the guarantee for free speech in the Basic Law or the bill of rights,” he said.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law is a mini-constitution that guarantees its civil freedoms and rights should remain unchanged for 50 years after the former British colony returned to Chinese rule after 1997.
The national security law, imposed by China to stamp out the months-long and sometimes violent anti-government protests that started in 2019, lays out penalties as severe as life imprisonment for crimes including secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
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