Hong Kong Sentences Five Publishers: IPA Joins Objections

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Aligned with concerns from world NGOs, the IPA’s Einarsson warns of a ‘once vibrant publishing market’ now ‘constrained’ in Hong Kong.

Traffic in the Mongkok district of Hong Kong, Kowloon Peninsula. Image – Getty iStockhoto: Lee Yiu Tung

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Einarsson: ‘To Scare Others Into Self-Censorship’
Amid reports this week of five children’s book publishers being sentenced in a Hong Kong court to 19 months’ imprisonment, the International Publishers Association (IPA) has added its own warning to international messages of alarm.

As Simone McCarthy and Kathleen Magramo have reported at CNN, “Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Marco Fong were found guilty of ‘conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications,'” the judge in the case calling their series of books “a brainwashing exercise with a view to guiding the very young children to accept their views and values, i.e. (Beijing) has no sovereignty over (Hong Kong).”

Tommy Walker at VOA, the Voice of America, reports from Bangkok that on September 7, “The five were convicted of conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications under a colonial-era law.” The 19-month sentences were levied in a hearing on Saturday (September 10).

As Walker goes on to describe the series, he writes, “The books featured cartoons of sheep that were trying to repel wolves from their village.

“The publications referenced real events in recent years during Hong Kong’s political turmoil, including the mass pro-democracy protests in 2019 and how 12 dissidents attempted to escape to Taiwan in a speedboat before being intercepted by the Chinese coast guard. After convicting the five, district court Judge Kwok Wai-Kin implied that children reading the books would be told they are the sheep and the wolves that are trying to harm them are Chinese authorities.”

Kristenn Einarsson

Kristenn Einarsson, chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee and the chief of the newly launched World Expression Forum in Norway (WEXFO), says, “The freedom to publish situation in Hong Kong is deteriorating rapidly.

“What was once a vibrant, free publishing market is being constrained, with cases like this clearly intended to scare other authors and publishers into self-censorship.”

Indeed, Human Rights Watch’s coverage tells us that the books, in a series titled Sheep Village, were published in 2020 and 2021. One source indicates that the books were rated for young readers 4 to 7 years of age. Individual books in the series have titles including The Guardians of Sheep Village; The 12 Heroes of Sheep Village; and The Garbage Collectors of Sheep Village.

“Since 2020,” the Human Rights Watch article continues, “Hong Kong prosecutors have increasingly used the crime of ‘sedition’—an archaic, overly broad crime—to clamp down on peaceful dissent.”

Amnesty International: A Brazen Act of Repression’

The Associated Press’ write-up from Saturday—when the five defendants, who all are speech therapists—”have already been jailed for more than a year and may be eligible for early release under the terms of the 19-month sentence handed down Saturday.

“What was once a vibrant, free publishing market is being constrained, with cases like this clearly intended to scare other authors and publishers into self-censorship.”Kristenn Einarsson, IPA

“They had pleaded not guilty but were convicted of sedition Wednesday after they printed a series of children’s books about sheep and wolves that a court said was aimed at inciting hatred against authorities.”

Mirroring Einarsson’s concern, the AP report goes on to say, “The clampdown has led to criticism that China’s ruling Communist Party has reneged on a 1997 pledge when Hong Kong was handed over from Britain to China to retain the city’s Western-style freedoms—including free speech.”

Pulling few punches, Amnesty International on September 7, as the conviction was announced, headlined its own piece “Hong Kong: Conviction of children’s book publishers an absurd example of unrelenting repression.”

Amnesty’s china campaigner Gwen Lee minced no words, saying:

“In today’s Hong Kong, you can go to jail for publishing children’s books with drawings of wolves and sheep. These ‘sedition’ convictions are an absurd example of the disintegration of human rights in the city.

“Writing books for children is not a crime, and attempting to educate children about recent events in Hong Kong’s history does not constitute an attempt to incite rebellion.

“The Hong Kong authorities’ recent revival of colonial-era sedition charges to prosecute activists, journalists, and writers is a brazen act of repression. No one had been charged with sedition since 1967 until the Hong Kong government began weaponizing these provisions to intensify its crackdown on freedom of expression.”

The ‘Imperial Reckoning’

There of course is some purely coincidental irony to the fact that Hong Kong’s sedition ordinance, as Human Rights Watch reminds us, was introduced by the British colonial government of Hong Kong in 1938, and, as Human Rights Watch’s team characterizes it, “primarily used against Chinese Communist Party supporters involved in the deadly 1967 riots in Hong Kong.”

There’s a peculiar sense that history has suddenly caught up with itself on issues of this kind, because the death of Queen Elizabeth II is prompting many calls in the United Kingdom and in Commonwealth countries for much more forthright and transparent reviews of British colonialism than have occurred, publicly, in the past.

Caroline Elkins is the author of Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (Penguin Random House/Bodley Head, March). In a conversation with Caroline Houck at Vox from Tuesday (September 13), she says, “What we do know is that with King Charles III, there can’t be any question about plausible deniability.

“Given the demands for a broader sort of imperial reckoning across the empire, based upon abundant numbers of protests and petitions from formerly colonized people, as well as the abundance of evidence that folks like myself have produced, he cannot sidestep this. So the question becomes: Will he break with tradition, with the legacy of his mother kind of gatekeeping a unique history of exceptionalism of the British Empire?”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the freedom to publish is here, more on freedom of expression is here, more on the work of Kristenn Einarsson is here, more on the IPA’s Prix Voltaire—which awards valor in the face of censorship—is here, and more on the Chinese market is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s global media partner.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.