Though he has encountered many obstacles, Wong says his experiences have been easy compared to many of the “faceless Hong Kong protesters” who have dealt with worse. They are the ones who inspire him to keep fighting.
At the age of 23, Joshua Wong has spent 127 days incarcerated for his work as one of the most visible pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. On Thursday, September 24, when Wong was in Central Station, he was again arrested. However, not just for unlawful assembly charges from last October but also for wearing a face mask during a time when mask-wearing during political demonstrations were banned.
His work, including co-founding Scholarism and Demosistō, has made him powerful enemies and allies. In 2015, when Wong was only 18, Fortune named him one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Readers in the West have chiefly learned of Wong through his op-eds in publications like The New York Times and The Guardian where he has written passionately about the fight for democracy.
In China and Hong Kong, though, the press has not always been so friendly to Wong. The Chinese Communist Party-backed Global Times recently mocked him for expressing concerns about being arrested again. Meanwhile, the pro-Beijing newspaper, Wen Wei Po, has accused Wong of being a paid political operative for the United States, an accusation Wong flatly denies.
In addition to being jailed twice – Wong’s most recent stint ended in July 2019 – Wong was barred from running in this year’s Hong Kong Legislative Council election, despite having received 30,000 votes in the primaries.
TMS recently spoke with Wong about life as one of the faces of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. He expressed an unwavering commitment to the cause. Though he has encountered many obstacles, Wong says his experiences have been easy compared to many of the “faceless Hong Kong protesters” who have dealt with worse. They are the ones who inspire him to keep fighting.
The origins of a revolution
Wong was only 15 when, in 2012, the government proposed Hong Kong schools adopt “The China Model,” a pro-China book that whitewashed much of the CCP’s history. This attempt at enforcing a “patriotic education” was viewed by many, Wong included, as an intrusion on Hong Kong’s autonomy and an effort to brainwash children.
Fired up by the cause, Wong co-founded Scholarism, a group of pro-democracy youth activists who organized protests in favor of Hong Kong’s educational autonomy.
The protests that summer, which united thousands of young people, succeeded. Leung Chun-ying, at the time the chief executive of Hong Kong, agreed to withdraw the book. That political victory marked the beginning of nearly a decade in which Wong has been one of the most recognizable advocates for democracy in Hong Kong.
Despite the public victory that thrust him into the global spotlight, Wong is circumspect about being called the “face” of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. He accepts the responsibility of the honorific, but stresses that the work is being done by many people, some facing far greater challenges than he is.
He realizes that for people to understand a foreign country’s political movement, it is often helpful to have a specific, easily recognizable leader to latch onto. Nevertheless, Wong points to the breadth of the movement in Hong Kong.
“But more and more Hong Kongers, they’re willing to pay more price than me. In Hong Kong, more than 10,000 people [have been] arrested … from the age of 11 to the age of 84.”
He says the four months he has spent in prison were a “piece of cake” when “more and more famil[ies] face jail sentences from 5 to 10 years.”
The politics of Hong Kong
Wong isn’t content to merely protest from the sidelines, having also sought to enter into local politics.
Weeks after disbanding Scholarism, Wong and fellow activists Nathan Law and Agnes Chow formed Demosistō, a political organization with the goal of bringing the pro-democracy fight against totalitarianism into Hong Kong’s legislative body.
Though Law became the youngest legislator in Hong Kong history in 2016, the Demosistō organization has faced considerable opposition. Both Wong and Law were sentenced to prison in 2017 for their role in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution protests at Hong Kong’s Civic Square. In 2019, Wong again went to prison for his involvement with protests in Mong Kok, a district of Hong Kong.
Additionally, Wong’s efforts to enter Hong Kong’s legislature have been stymied by the government and the city’s current Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The pro-Beijing government barred Wong and 11 other pro-democracy candidates from running in the 2020 Hong Kong election due to their opposition to the CCP-crafted national security law.
Days after Wong was officially barred from running for the legislature, the government postponed the elections until 2021, citing concerns over COVID-19.
Despite persistent opposition, Wong says, “I still believe political activism is an effective way to bring about systematic change in Hong Kong.” Even though he has faced censorship from the government, he knows “they can’t disqualify my qualifications” to hold office. Indeed, with 30,000 votes in this year’s primaries, Wong had the strongest showing of any candidate in his district.
“People in Hong Kong believe that I’m qualified enough to be the politician and the lawmaker.”
Still, Wong understands that change is not just about one person or organization. Political action involves persistence.
Following the passing of the national security law, the Demosistō organization was disbanded. Rather than see that as a setback, Wong wants people to embrace the “Be Water” principle, as articulated by martial arts expert Bruce Lee. The principle is a call to be adaptive and uncontained by barriers, so that even as the pro-democracy movement faces obstacles, it remains strong and unbroken.
“The organization is not the core issue,” Wong states. “More important is the solidarity of the resistance camp.”
The anti-China candidate?
When asked how Wong responds to accusations by China’s state media that he is “anti-China” and seeking to destroy Hong Kong culture, he explains, “I am not anti-China, I’m just anti-Communist regime hard-line crackdown.”
He describes himself not in terms of what he opposes, but who he supports: “human rights activists and dissidents in mainland China.” He has also firmly denied accusations that he is aligned with US forces, saying there is “no evidence” for this claim, maintaining he has his own personal motivations for doing the work he does.
“I stand for the one who believes in democracy, freedom and human rights, and [I] wish to encourage more people around the world to stand with Hong Kong.”
He also finds common cause with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US, despite different historical and cultural backgrounds. Both the BLM protests and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement give a voice to a new generation, Wong believes.
Both movements, he feels, encourage “people to realize that they could also have a say in the future of their hometown and … government accountability.”
Separating the political from the personal
Despite international acclaim and local infamy, Wong maintains a normal life. He is still a 23-year-old man (he turns 24 in October) with a personal life, even if it doesn’t always look like that from the outside.
“I feel like I’m still able to have a normal life as a teenager and now 20-something,” Wong tells TMS. “But, of course, I will not disclose those details on social media because I hope to keep some of the privacy for myself and, also, if I expose more of my private life, [it] would just put my friends and family members, their life and safety at risk.”
Wong is a prolific user of social media sites like Twitter and Instagram, but you won’t find pictures of him posing with friends at bars or celebrating birthdays on there. Instead, he uses his platforms to highlight social and political issues related to Hong Kong and to support calls for political action.
The fight continues
Having spent four months in prison, some might expect Wong to have lost some of his will to fight. Not at all, he assures TMS. He instead remains inspired by people all around the city he calls home.
“I wish people know more about other faceless Hong Kong protesters instead of me,” Wong says. These are the people who were born in, live in, and love Hong Kong, flaws and all. The fight for a democratic Hong Kong is a fight for every one of them, past, present and future.
“I hope to continue the fight until one day Hong Kong is Hong Kong again.”
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