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Red Line Extended to Political Satire after Sheep Village Picture Book Case


This is translated from CitizenNews' weekly digest tracking Hong Kong's political news over the past week. (一周政情:羊村繪本案擴紅線至政治諷刺

In the past week, the most prominent political news was the arrest of five members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists (GUHKST) by the National Security Department (NSD) of the Police for publishing three children's picture books, which were considered seditious publications and in breach of Section 10 of the Crimes Ordinance. Chairman Lai Man-ling and external vice chairman Yeung Yat-yi were subsequently charged with the offence, and their application for bail was refused by the National Security Law-appointed judge, Victor So Wai-tak, resulting in their immediate remanding until 30 August. The case, known as the Sheep Village Picture Book Case, extends the political red line of threats to freedom of expression to include political satire and allegorical works.

The police held a press conference after the arrest and displayed exhibits including the Sheep Village picture book and guide, a leaflet calling for a strike in February last year, paper with characters of "Glory to Hong Kong" and a statue of the Hong Kong version of the Goddess of Democracy. Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah of the NSD said that the "Sheep Village" series aimed to poison children by glorifying illegal acts, heroising the "12 fugitives" and rationalising health care strikes through children's cartoons. From a legal point of view, he said it was an attempt to arouse hatred of the government and the justice system, incite violence and cause lawlessness.

The three allegedly incendiary publications were published between June last year and March this year. Li said that the book "The Guardian of Sheep Village" published in June last year was set against the backdrop of the anti-ELAB controversy, with a chronological table corresponding to the story of Sheep Village and the anti-ELAB controversy. He was of the view that the wolf meant the mainlanders and the sheep were the locals. He also pointed out that there were passages where the sheep were described as attacking with their horns, i.e. carrying out violent incidents.

As for "The 12 Warriors of Sheep Village", published in September last year, Li said the story was based on 12 Hong Kong people who had committed serious crimes in Hong Kong, but that the wolves attempted to kill the sheep because the sheep were involved in a defensive battle. In that case, the story was intended to arouse hatred for the judicial system. He also quoted a chapter in which it was implied that the 12 Hong Kong people were arrested when the sheep went to the wolf's village and were killed when they "became a meal", questioning this as untrue and suggesting that the plot was intended to create hatred for the regime.

The third picture book, "The Cleaner of Sheep Village", published in March this year, talks about the health care strike in February last year, a year after the incident, and was published in the hope of stirring up hatred. He said that the story mentioned that the wolf had opened a hole in the fence of the sheep village as a reference to the situation at the border, that the sheep were clean and the wolf was dirty, implying that the virus was brought into Hong Kong as a result, and that some people wanted to exert pressure to close the border and go on strike.

When asked whether the hole in the fence of Sheep Village is a symbol of the border crossing, and whether it is his personal judgement to say that "became a meal" means being killed, Li said that there is a table of correspondence in the book, saying that the story of Sheep Village is like the anti-ELAB movement, and that the story of "12 Warriors" directly lists the names of 12 Hong Kong people.

However, the book "The Scavenger of Sheep Village" does not contain a table of correspondences, and some reporters questioned whether it was reasonable for the police to speculate on this book. Li admitted that there was no table of correspondences in this book, "but if you read the first two books, you know the role of the wolf and the sheep, and then you read the third book, you already know what the story is about."

Asked whether it was illegal to use metaphors and whether political cartoons such as those criticising the government had crossed the red line, Lee said the content of the cartoons was not metaphorical, adding that publications should not have an inflammatory intent and "must not make people hate the government."

From the facts of the case and the rationale for the prosecution, it is clear that the attitude of the NSD towards political satire and political allegory is that as long as the satire or allegory is relatively clear and has the objective effect of creating public hatred for the government, it can be prosecuted under the draconian law of "publishing seditious publications" inherited from the colonial era.

Moreover, the prosecution would regard the case as one that endangered national security, would ask the court to appoint a judge under the National Security Law, and would oppose the defendant's application for bail under Article 42 of the National Security Law. These elements together constitute a clear and typical case of literal inquisition, a simple incrimination by words, and the loss of personal freedom without a trial and conviction.

According to this red line of political censorship, which is interpreted by the law enforcement action in the Sheep Village case, there is a large amount of political satire in the Hong Kong media, such as political cartoons, essays and commentaries with political implications, and even political novels and poems that satirise politics, all of which can be regarded as "seditious publications".

Whether or not they can be published legally depends solely on whether or not the police enforce the law. With such a huge legal risk, it is believed that more writers will cease writing, and that renowned Hong Kong-style political satire will gradually decline.

The case was arraigned at the West Kowloon Magistrates' Court on Friday (23 July) and was handled by Chief Magistrate Victor So Wai-tak, a judge appointed under the National Security Law. The prosecution confirmed outside court that it had asked So to consider the case by referring to the National Security Law bail guidelines, but So did not accept them, citing the general bail procedures under the Criminal Procedure Ordinance as the reason for consideration.

However, So decided to refuse bail for both defendants, stating that in view of the seriousness of the case and the risk of the defendants not returning to court on time, bail was refused and they were to be remanded immediately until 30 August.

So's ruling shows that although the court did not apply the very high threshold of Section 42 of the National Security Law in processing the bail applications, the court essentially accepted the prosecution's judgement on the merits of the case and effectively left the defendants, like those in serious criminal cases, without bail pending trial and already in jail pending police investigation and evidence.

The political message of this decision is like a cold wind blowing in the winter, pushing people in the media and publishing industries into an ice-cold abyss.


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