Hong Kong police arrested five people on Thursday on sedition charges, saying that children's books they had published featuring wolves and sheep as characters were aimed at inciting hatred towards the city's government amongst youngsters.
The arrests were the latest involving suspected critics of Hong Kong's government that have raised fears about the shrinking space for dissent since Beijing imposed a national security law in June 2020 to put an end to pro-democracy protests in the semi-autonomous city.
Police said one book, "Defenders of the Sheep Village", was connected to the protests. In the story, wolves want to occupy the village and eat the sheep, who in turn use their horns to fight back.
Those arrested were members of a speech therapists' union that produced books for children. Police said the five were two men and three women aged between 25 and 28. They did not identify them by name.
The five were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to publish seditious material under a colonial-era law that had been rarely used before the anti-government protests began in the former British colony.
Senior police superintendent Steve Li told a media briefing that police were concerned by the books because of the information inside for children which "turns their mind and develop a moral standard to be against society".
They highlighted two other books produced by the union in addition to "Defenders of the Sheep Village".
The second told the story of 12 sheep taken by wolves to the beasts' village where they would be cooked, potentially alluding to the 12 Hong Kong people captured by China in August last year at sea as they tried to flee the city by boat. Li said the story was not factual and incited hatred against authorities.
The third book tells the story of wolves sneaking through a hole into the sheep village and shows the wolves as dirty and the sheep as clean. This aimed to create hatred against the government, Li said.
First convictions under the sedition law can carry a maximum penalty of two years in prison, police said. The General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists could not be reached for comment.
Authorities have denied any erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong - which returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula aimed at preserving its freedoms and role as a financial hub - but say China's national security is a red line.
Security officials have said law enforcement action is based on evidence and has nothing to do with an individual's political stance, background or profession.