At face value, they could not look more innocent – a set of children’s picture books featuring cartoon sheep in a rural idyll.
But to Hong Kong’s newly-censorious police force, there is no mistaking the real meaning behind stories like the "The Defenders of the Sheep Village".
Police have arrested five people on sedition charges over the books, claiming that the wolves who chase the sheep in the stories are a thinly-disguised allusion to China’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms.
“The book mentioned that the sheep would become a meal after they were caught in the wolves’ village,” said Senior Superintendent Steve Li, as he held up one of the offending publications at a news conference on Thursday. They attempted to simplify “political issues not comprehensible by children”, he added, and to “beautify illegal behaviour.”
The arrests are the latest in an ongoing sweep against critics of Chinese rule, previously targeting both opposition figures and independent newspapers. It now appears that political satire is also no longer permitted.
Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah
Police said that "Defenders of the Sheep Village" was an allegory for the massive street protests that took place in 2019 against Beijing’s imposition of draconian new security laws in Hong Kong.
In the story, wolves seek to seek to occupy the sheep’s village and devour its inhabitants, who then used their horns to fight back.
"A sheep is such a kind-hearted animal, and they [producers of the book] have to say that it has some attack ability, and has to commit some violent acts,” complained Mr Li.
The five people arrested – two men and three women all aged in their late 20s – were members of a speech therapists’ union that produced books for children.
Another offending book told the story of 12 sheep taken to a wolves’ village to be cooked. It was presumed to allude to the 12 Hong Kong activists captured by China’s coast guard last August as they tried to flee by boat to Taiwan. One of the book’s last pages features the names of the dozen activists against sheep profile pictures.
A third book, called Dustman of the Sheep Village, was taken to refer to the Covid outbreak that first surfaced in China in late 2019. “The sheep were very clean and the wolves were very dirty,” Mr Li said, adding that it "implied that some viruses were brought in this way."
Hong Kong's senior superintendent holds children's books which allegedly try to explain about the city's democracy movement
Mr Li was asked whether George Orwell’s classic allegorical books Animal Farm and 1984 would now also be illegal in Hong Kong. He claimed the two titles were different from the children’s books, which he said aimed to incite hate.
The members of the speech therapist’s union were detained ahead of planned Saturday reading sessions for children, police said. Assets of around £18,000 were also frozen. The therapists’ union was not available for comment.
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The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions said that the case “sounded the death knell of artistic creation freedom.”
The arrests came as a court in Hong Kong jailed seven men for their role in a violent mob attack on pro-democracy protesters in 2019.
The attack, said to have been orchestrated by Triad gangsters, saw men wielding Chinese flags assault crowds with batons. Police were accused at the time of doing little to intervene, prompting a surge in support for the protesters.