VIDEO: In June 2017, Joshua Wong talked to Al Jazeera about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Click here to watch the full episode of Talk to Al Jazeera on Hong Kong 20 years after the handover.
Hong Kong – Twenty-year-old Joshua Wong is addicted to smartphones. Slim-built and in thick-rimmed, lensless glasses, he is an archetypal Hong Kong teenager. Even the protest t-shirt he wears features a funny “manga” cartoon.
But, in 2014, this harmless-looking youngster was one of the leaders of the Umbrella Revolution, a pro-democracy movement that barricaded itself in downtown Hong Kong. And now, despite political pressure and physical assaults, he remains defiant, even drawing a plan for Hong Kong’s democracy.
Wong’s activism began when he was just 14 and founded the student organisation, Scholarism. But it reached its peak when, over two months last year, in the largest political demonstration in China since the Tiananmen massacre, more than 1.5 million people protested against the Beijing government.
If 10 years ago someone had told us that in 2047 China would look like Hong Kong, we would have believed it. But in the last decade we have seen how the Communist Party is looking to make Hong Kong more and more similar to the rest of China.
“We demanded universal suffrage and that every Hong Kong citizen can run for the 2017 local elections. Because, according to the White Paper approved by the Central Government, only those who ‘love the country and the Communist Party’ are eligible candidates,” he explains.
“So nobody who thinks that we should end one-party rule in the country can be our chief executive. That’s a joke, not democracy.”
And that is why, on September 26, 2014, Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students decided to stage a protest in front of the government building in downtown Hong Kong.
But what was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration, peppered with inspiring speeches soon spiralled into something else.
After government representatives refused to meet the protesters, several activists, including Wong, climbed the fence and tried to enter the premises.
“It’s the best decision I ever made in my life,” he reflects.
Thirteen of them were arrested as police in full riot gear charged at the protesters, using pepper spray. Dozens were injured as the Civic Square outside the government building came to resemble a battlefield.
Two days later, the hundreds of demonstrators turned into thousands, and the civil disobedience movement that became known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace was born – the yellow umbrella quickly becoming its symbol.
The umbrella was more than just symbolic – as well as offering the demonstrators protection from the sun and rain, it also helped shield them from the pepper spray used by police.
As international media followed this rare example of defiance against Chinese rule with interest, Wong rose to prominence – polling third in Time magazine’s 2014 Person of the Year list and being deemed one of the “great leaders of the world” in 2015 by Fortune.
He is now easily recognised in Hong Kong, and regularly stops to take selfies with supporters.
Still, he prefers to downplay the media attention and focuses, instead, on the political discourse that revolves around his favourite quote. Borrowed from the movie V for Vendetta, it is: “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government, governments should be afraid of their people.”
Wong is well aware that, in China, this represents little less than a declaration of war.
And that is so even in Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region that has been governed since the 1997 British handover by the “one country, two systems” motto. This model allows the former colony to maintain its unique political and economic system: a form of capitalism in which rights that have no place in mainland China – such as freedom of expression, press or demonstration – are guaranteed. But it comes with an expiry date: in 2047, Hong Kong will be fully integrated into the People’s Republic. And many of its seven million inhabitants fear that this will signal the end of the metropolis’ move towards being a democratic society.
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“If 10 years ago someone had told us that in 2047 China would look like Hong Kong, we would have believed it. But in the last decade, we have seen how the Communist Party is looking to make Hong Kong more and more similar to the rest of China,” says Wong.
Beijing hasn’t even honoured its promises to the British, who ruled the territory for 150 years, he explains.
“Beijing agreed to grant Hong Kong universal suffrage in 2007 to directly elect the chief executive. But in 2003, after the mass protests against Article 23 – known as the Anti-Subversion Act -, the central government decided to deprive us of that right as a punishment. So today, we can’t yet vote for those who rule us. That’s what we are fighting to achieve.”
And Wong says he is willing to pay whatever price the battle for democracy might bill him.
In fact, it seems as though he may already be beginning to pay.
In May 2015, Malaysia denied him entry to the country, where he was invited to attend a conference about the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. “I took the plane and arrived there without any problems, but the immigration authorities refused my entry because they argued I am a troublesome element. I was forced to return to Hong Kong immediately,” he recalls with a smirk.
Back in Hong Kong, he addressed the myriad news reporters who had gathered to meet him. “I didn’t think that even a democratic country like Malaysia would deport me for fighting for Hong Kong people to get universal suffrage,” he said.
Soon after, Malaysia’s inspector-general of police, Abu Bakar Khalid, acknowledged that the measure was taken to avoid damaging bilateral ties with China. Meanwhile, the Islamic group Ikatan Muslim Malaysia applauded his deportation, suggesting that he may, in fact, have a hidden religious agenda.
And that isn’t the first time that Wong has been accused of working undercover or of being an agent for foreign forces. “The pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po published that I received military training from the United States and that I’m one of their spies. Come on. I’m still a college student who has to finish his degree in Political Science and Public Administration,” he says, allowing himself a rare moment of amusement.
Now, he says, he only feels confident visiting countries that do not enjoy good relations with Beijing and, he adds, he doesn’t even feel safe in Hong Kong anymore.
That was a feeling compounded on June 28, when, as Wong was leaving a cinema with his girlfriend, a stranger crossed the road and punched him in the face.
“I don’t know what his motive was and we haven’t been able to identify him because it was dark,” he says.
“I think it wasn’t planned because he just got to punch me once, but it is a big pressure for me,” Wong reflects.
Various social activist groups have called the attack a “threat to freedom of expression”.
And while the abuse he sometimes receives is largely limited to insults and mockery – as well as one incident on November 29 when two men threw eggs at his head as he finished talking to reporters – Wong is now much more conscious of his personal safety.
“I think these kinds of things may happen again,” he says, explaining that, as a precaution, he no longer takes the subway at night.
What does give him comfort, however, is the unconditional support he receives from his family.
In fact, it was his parents who instilled in him his interest in politics.
“I was 13 when there was a five-district referendum election and protests started against the high-speed train, which will connect with the railway network of mainland China,” he remembers.
It was a defining moment for Wong, who realised then that he didn’t want to be somebody who simply followed a system unquestioningly.
“The teacher used to tell us that if we earn a lot of money we could help the poor and that if we got into the government we could become chief executive. That is the traditional Hong Kong mindset,” he says.
But Wong thought there must be a faster way to make change: direct action. So he started to attend the annual June 4 candlelight vigil, held in silence at Victoria Park to commemorate those killed in Tiananmen, as well as the noisier July 1 protests marking the handover to China.
Both events attract thousands of people, but Wong still sensed that Hong Kong was moving in a direction he was unhappy with. Then, in 2011, the government proposed the Patriotic Education Reform.
“Again, it was all about loving the country and the party,” he says. “And I saw how the politicians just gave press conferences against it.”
He asked himself: “Do they really believe that just with that the government will accept their requests?”
“We had to do something about it,” he explains. That something was Scholarism, the student organisation he founded with 10 other students.
Their first political victory came early. Wong managed to mobilise around 120,000 people onto the streets on September 7, 2012. Hong Kong’s leaders responded by backing down a day later. Wong was just 15 years old.
But, even then, he had no idea of the much larger movement that would follow just two years later.
The 2014 Umbrella Revolution became a milestone in Hong Kong’s rebuttal of communist rule. Thousands of, mostly young, people camped in spots across the city centre. And the greater the force deployed against them, the more their numbers seemed to swell.
But what really seemed to define the movement was its organisation. The campsites were kept clean and tidy, students were given free classes on the road so that the protest wouldn’t take a toll on their academic performance and a media centre was set up, fully equipped with interpreters to assist the foreign journalist covering the story.
The mood was, on the whole, festive and humorous. Sentiments were often expressed through urban art, including portraits of Chinese president Xi Jinping holding a yellow umbrella and Minions drawn on the barricades. As a tribute to those who erected the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen 28 years ago, an Umbrella Man sculpture was created by local artist Milk.
The peaceful nature of the protest came to be symbolised by a gesture adopted by the protesters – arms crossed in the air.
“I don’t think we should promote physical violence against anyone to reach our goal,” Wong says. “But the problem of the people of Hong Kong isn’t that they aren’t radical enough, as some have said, but that they aren’t willing to pay the price that may accompany a political struggle against China.”
The protesters pledged to keep their movement alive until Beijing changed its policy. But 79 days after the start of Occupy Central, on December 11, the Eastern Magistrate Court judges, who had charged Wong of unlawful assembly, authorised the eviction of the last movement’s last stronghold in Admiralty.
“You can say we failed because we didn’t achieve any change in the political system,” Wong reflects. “But we did plant a seed in the younger generations. Unlike those over the age of 40, of whom 70 percent opposed our actions, thousands of high school students have become interested in politics thanks to the occupation. And they support us.”
His hopes are particularly high for those born after 2000. “At 13, they have participated in strikes; at 14, they have led a wave of civil disobedience, and at 15, they are involved in direct action and even getting arrested. These experiences are changing their lives, and that leads them to engage more and more passionately. We may have lost this battle, but not the war.”
Teenager Suzie Tsz Chang is a prime example of the kind of youngster Wong invests so much of his hope in.
“During the occupation, there were many banners stating that ‘we will be back’, and that’s true for sure,” she says.
No country has ever achieved democracy in a communist system. If we succeed, we will have made history.
Like many other teenagers, she is aware that when 2047 comes, she will be in her forties and, therefore, very much susceptible to the changes it may bring.
“My parents’ generation doesn’t want trouble, because they won’t be here then,” she says. “But I will, and I want to live freely. So, for me, Joshua Wong is an example to follow; a brave guy who is sacrificing a lot for us.”
Wong is conscious that, if the movement is to be followed, it will need a clear plan. And that, he says, was not around a year ago. Then, the demonstrations were born out of frustration – a show of force, a desperate cry without a plan. But that is beginning to change
“I want Hong Kong to have democracy. That’s why we should walk towards the right to self-determination. People must be able to decide whether they want ‘one country, two systems’, ‘one country, one system’, or even independence,” he explains.
His roadmap includes a process with short-, medium- and long-term goals.
“First, it’s necessary to build the referendum system as common practice for Hong Kong to decide the most important issues, such as minimum wage or social housing policy,” he says, proposing that this system be used to gain greater autonomy.
“Independence would not be necessary if China granted us more autonomy and democracy … Unfortunately, we only get disappointments from China,” he adds.
But Wong knows his mission is close to impossible.
“No country has ever achieved democracy in a communist system. If we succeed, we will have made history,” he says.
And he is prepared to go to jail for the sake of that history. Reflecting on that possibility, he concludes: “If they act against me in that way the movement would gain a lot of strength.”
This article was first published on aljazeera.com in September 2015.
Follow Zigor Aldama on Twitter: @zigoraldama