Five people accused of inciting hatred and spreading separatism by publishing children’s picture books which depict Hongkongers as sheep and mainland Chinese as wolves have gone on trial in the city under a colonial-era sedition law. 

District Court
District Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Fong Tsz-ho officially entered their not guilty pleas before District Judge Kwok Wai-kin on Tuesday, almost one year after their arrests under the recently-resurrected Crimes Ordinance in July last year. They have been in custody for more than 10 months since their bail applications were rejected on national security grounds. 

The five were executive committee members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, which was founded in November 2019 during the anti-extradition bill unrest. They were said to have taken part in a conspiracy to print, publish, distribute and display three books between June 2020 and July 2021 with seditious intention. 

‘Infiltrate seditious ideology’ 

In her opening statement, Prosecutor Laura Ng said the defendants had admitted that the three picture books were inspired by the political crisis sparked by the extradition bill. 

HKCTU supporting the speech therapists sheep story books
Members from the disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions held up paper masks of sheep at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on July 23, 2021 to show solidarity with the speech therapists. FIle Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The union chairwoman Lorie Lai was quoted as telling InMedia in an interview that the first and second picture books must be read together, which the prosecution argued was an attempt to “infiltrate seditious ideology” to children and adult readers. 

The first picture book published on June 4, 2020, which depicted a group of sheep guarding their home against a pack of wolves, was said to have promoted separatism by portraying China as a “brutal dictator,” the prosecutor said. Ng said the book implied that China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong was an “invasion” and that mainlanders made Hongkongers “uncivilised.” 

“These ideas would boil up or even incite anti-Chinese fear and sentiment, provoking hatred or contempt against the Central Government and the HKSAR government…” Ng said, adding the book incited Hong Kong citizens to “use violence, resist continuously and betray the authorities.”

allegedly seditious children's book
A page from 12 Warriors of the Sheep Village depicting the sheep asking whether the 12 sheep caught were eaten by the wolves. Photo: The General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists.

The second picture book published on December 9, 2020 depicted 12 sheep being forced to leave their village after they were targeted by the wolves. The prosecution said this was a reference to 12 Hong Kong fugitives intercepted by Chinese marine police in August 2020 while trying to flee to Taiwan on a speedboat.

Most of the fugitives were facing criminal charges linked to the protests. 

The book had “seriously degraded the lawful arrests, detention and prosecution of the 12 criminals,” Ng said, adding it urged the public to “bring resistance to the international stage,” which “exceeded expressing concerns and sympathy for the criminals.” 

‘Intensified’ Hong Kong-China conflicts 

The third picture book published on March 16, 2021 depicted sheep street cleaners going on strike and being penalised by the “big wolf.” It was said to be an allusion to Hong Kong medics who went on strike in February 2020 in a bid to pressure the government to shut its borders with mainland China to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Hospital Authority staff members on strike
Hospital Authority staff members on strike in February 2020. File Photo: Supplied.

The prosecution said the publication had incited hatred against mainland Chinese and portrayed them as “selfish, uncivilised and unhygienic.” Ng said the book “unfairly” blamed mainland Chinese people for the spread of the virus, fuelling conflict between Hong Kong and the mainland. 

“The accumulated effect of picture books one to three was to affect or educate its readers not to be Chinese and not to have a national concept,” Ng said. 

“In fact, it indoctrinated readers with separatism… causing them to lose a sense of belonging, harming China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the long-term stability of the HKSAR,” she added. 

Ng also pointed to a fourth picture book which was not published due to the arrests. The storyline was “extremely similar” to the unofficial legislative primary election in July 2020, Ng said. The authorities later prosecuted 47 pro-democracy figures under the national security law, saying the primary was part of a conspiracy to commit subversion. 

democrats pro democracy 35+ legco legislative council primary election 2020 september au nok hin andrew chiu benny tai
Hong Kong pro-democracy figures calling on the public to take part in an unofficial legislative primary election. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

In her 24-page opening statement, Ng also pointed to a declaration published by the union which stated its pro-democracy stance. The union had pledged to “defend democracy, human rights, freedom and other universal values,” as well as urge those in power to respond to the “five demands” put forward by protesters.

The prosecution also cited the therapists’ interviews with several local media outlets, including InMedia, the now-defunct Apply Daily, Radio Free Asia and D100 Radio. 

Chairwoman Lai, for instance, told Apple Daily in February 2020 that she would not mind losing her job if Hong Kong could be “liberated.” She also said the union had plans to join other labour groups and take industrial action to put pressure on the government. 

Different roles 

The five defendants were said to have played different roles in the conspiracy. Chairwoman Lai was the spokesperson of the union and administrator of its social media accounts. She also promoted the “seditious” books and contacted pro-democracy shops to distribute them, the prosecution argued.

Melody Yeung, the external vice-chief of the union, had given media interviews along with Lai and set up street booths. She also organised a book-reading session with Samuel Chan, the union’s treasurer, and helped with printing the picture books. 

The union’s secretary and third defendant Sidney Ng was responsible for managing the group’s bank account and membership. Police found the union’s stamp and 360 new membership cards at her residence, prosecutor Ng said. 

Treasurer Chan was in charge of the union’s finances and assisted in the creation of more “seditious” picture books, the prosecution alleged, while committee member Fong Tsz-ho was responsible for operating the union’s website, which was still accessible as of Tuesday afternoon. He also used the union’s phone number and had kept track of interview clippings and promotion for the books. 

The alleged conspiracy would have continued had the five not been arrested, prosecutor Ng said, adding the picture books would “poison” the thoughts of children and adults and form “anti-China, anti-Hong Kong forces” in the city. 

Sedition is not covered by the Beijing-imposed national security law, which targets secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts and mandates up to life imprisonment. Those convicted under the sedition law, which was last amended in the 1970s when Hong Kong was still a British colony, face a less serious maximum penalty of two years in prison. 

The trial will continue on Wednesday and is set to last for five days. 

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.