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Hong Kong’s angry young millennials: an interview with Joshua Wong

The student protest leader has been the centre of western media attention, but he’s not without his critics within Hong Kong’s Occupy movement. Joshua Wong tells us why his struggle for democracy isn’t over yet.

Joshua Wong, 2015. Demotix/David Smith. All rights reserved. Joshua Wong, 2015. Demotix/David Smith. All rights reserved.“Many people ask me, should we have halted the occupation a lot earlier?” It would seem that Joshua Wong has no regrets. “We could not have stopped the movement,” he tells me, without looking up. “Even if we had declared an end, we would not have been able to persuade everyone to leave. And we couldn’t abandon them.” He punctuates every sentence with a swipe of his phone, both distracted and alert: the ultimate networked activist.

The 19-year-old is speaking to me shortly before delivering a speech to a packed chamber at the Oxford Union, the latest stop on his international speaking circuit. It’s a million miles away from what he faces back home in Hong Kong. “Now we are paying the price with political prosecutions,” Wong tells me. He has been charged with unlawful assembly, and faces up to five years in prison if convicted, along with other youth leaders of the protests which billowed across Hong Kong for three months at the end of 2014.

The pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong has always moved according to its own unstable, unpredictable logic. Last September, Joshua Wong urged activists to seize Civic Square, directly in front of the government headquarters. Wong found himself in a police station while 200 protesters occupied the space. But over Wong’s two nights in prison, the protest movement escalated to tens of thousands, growing even more furious after police fired 87 canisters of tear gas into crowds. Umbrellas were used to shield activists from waves of pepper spray. And in this humble household object, the movement suddenly found its symbol of resistance.

As the clouds lifted, the initial anger around the lack of public electoral participation – and in particular, the plan that nominations for Hong Kong’s chief executive be left to a Beijing-screened group – had erupted into a full-scale social explosion.

We could not have stopped the movement.
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When I arrived in Hong Kong in late November, the occupation had entered its final, protracted phase. The activists had failed to find an exit strategy, and meanwhile, the establishment was busy using civil-court injunctions to clear the protest camps. But Admiralty district, Hong Kong’s financial heartland, remained as it had been for the past few months: a city of tents, streaked through with wild, utopian art made out of yellow ribbon and umbrellas. I was struck by the sheer number of school students weaving through the encampment in their uniforms. They gave the scene a particular anarchic quality. This newly politicised high school contingent is largely a product of the last few years. Joshua Wong is, of course, a huge part of that story.

For Wong, the trigger point came during the Anti-Patriotic Education campaign in 2012. “That’s when I first aligned myself with civil disobedience and student activism”. He formed the protest group Scholarism to fight government plans to introduce a compulsory “Moral and National Education” programme into the school curriculum. Wong thought that the programme, which referred to the Chinese Communist Party as “progressive, selfless and united”, was little more than indoctrination dictated from Beijing.

This was a turning point for high school engagement in politics, and an early sign of just what it was capable of. After 120,000 people demonstrated outside government offices, and with the added threat of a hunger strike, the course was put on hiatus. 

Joshua Wong, 2015. Demotix/David Smith. All rights reserved. Joshua Wong, 2015. Demotix/David Smith. All rights reserved.Wong was born in 1996, the year before the city-state’s handover from British to Chinese rule. He is emblematic of a whole generation of Hong Kong youth who have since been alienated, rather than drawn closer, to Beijing. Although the Chinese Communist Party has maintained close ties to Hong Kong’s working class through local pro-Beijing parties which focus on social services, there is now a whole swathe of Hong Kong youth who face a housing crisis and bleak job prospects.

Hong Kong’s millennials are searching for a way to demonstrate their discontent, and Wong has risen to provide the outlet. “In each high school, there will be one or two students who cannot find any channel to engage in politics, whether that’s organising or participating,” he explains. “Scholarism’s strategy is to reach out and engage with them, using our network to leverage influence across all of Hong Kong’s schools”. Scholarism still sits at a relatively small 300 members. But Wong has committed himself to rapidly expanding that student base, despite the significant academic pressures faced by Hong Kong youth that might divert them from political struggle.

I spoke to Glacier Kwong, a 19-year-old digital rights activist in Hong Kong – co-founder of the Keyboard Frontline group – and a direct product of this newly politicised generation. Kwong’s first protest was the annual 1 July pro-democracy march back in 2012, when she was 16. “The motivation for me as an activist is the belief that no one is subordinate to another,” she tells me. “The government is merely an agent of the people. We lend authority to it, and when it performs badly, we reserve the right to take it back.”

But while Kwong admires Scholarism’s work in raising teenage political awareness, she says that “not much else is really being done”. She makes the point that, “even with the success of the anti-patriotic education campaign, the government merely paused the plan, but did not cancel it.”

Nevertheless, Hong Kong’s new generational dynamic was made clear repeatedly throughout the 2014 protests, between the optimistic radicalism of Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, and the social conservatism and centrist demands of the ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ (OCLP) faction of older pro-democracy protesters, led by the academics Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and the reverend Chu Yiu-ming. While Tai had originally scheduled a peaceful demonstration in Hong Kong’s financial district at the beginning of October, student activists made their own plans. It was the students who first escalated action and led protesters into Civic Square.

But in post-occupation Hong Kong, no longer the subject of western newspaper editorials, the prevailing mood is that of despondency. There has been little sign of another mass display of civil disobedience. OCLP co-founder Chan Kin-man (a sociologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong) told me last month that he thought the drawn-out occupation had been a mistake. “The 2014 protests lacked coherent leadership”, he said, “student leaders were torn between Occupy Central campaigners and more radical protesters. And the standoff led to a backlash from the community.”

One year on, Chan Kin-man says, “there is a strong sense of cynicism. What can people do when a large-scale movement of civil disobedience has failed to create real change?”

I put that question to Joshua Wong. “The fact is that even Chan Kin-man would not have been able to motivate 90 percent of the protesters to leave the camps” he says. “The OCLP leaders have always insisted on demonstrating ‘love and peace’ even when that’s not necessary every time.”

Civic Passion understand how to transform boring political issues into something subcultural.
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But Wong is notably conciliatory towards all of the factions within the Hong Kong protest movement, even its right-wing elements, which espouse a ‘nativist’ politics. Memorably, one activist I met last year went further and described the members of these particular factions outright as “fascists”. That includes the Civic Passion group, whose brand of anti-mainland nationalism – a narrative of national belonging rather than an analysis of class conflict – still remains popular in Hong Kong.

Wong is skeptical over whether Civic Passion will derail future progressive movements in the city: “they are too busy investing in media rather than actually organising direct action”.

I ask if they might be a sign of a far-right emergence in Hong Kong. “I think it’s important to reflect on why right-wing groups like Civic Passion have had such an influence, rather than dismissing them as populist,” Wong replies. “They have contributed, in their own way, to the culture of the protest movement. They understand how to transform boring political issues into something subcultural. Their Passion Times radio programme, for instance, has attracted a lot of teenage support.”

Wong argues that all these divergent experiences and ideologies were an important part of the Umbrella movement’s staying power: “if the movement had been made up purely of students, it would have been impossible to maintain. We need to cooperate with each other, even if we have different mindsets”. But he’s less clear on how its freewheeling composition could avoid an incoherent strategy on the ground. And that’s exactly what happened. As the movement crested, protesters found themselves in a stalemate.

Wong does admit that over the next two years, “it won’t be possible to organise a movement larger than the Umbrella movement”, to carry on what it started. So where should activists turn to now?

Joshua Wong appears in court. Demotix/Jayne Russell. All rights reserved. Joshua Wong appears in court. Demotix/Jayne Russell. All rights reserved.Civil society in Hong Kong remains in flux, still reconsolidating and regrouping. “Even though we weren’t able to change the essential political structures after Occupy, from observation, we’ve strengthened civil society, with countless new professional groupings – the Progressive Lawyers Group, for example,” Wong says. Hong Kong’s pan-democrat alliance of politicians, academics and NGOs have been fighting for universal suffrage for over three decades now, he tells me. “This will be a long war for us”, he says, “we need to prepare, to strengthen civil society”.

And so Joshua Wong is turning his attention back to the institutional fight for elections. To that end, he is seeking a judicial review to lower the candidacy age limit to the Legislative Council from 21 to 18. “The formation of the Legislative Council has not changed over the last 4 years of civil society mobilisation. It’s necessary to let new generations, new blood, enter the institution”, Wong says, “to bring more voices from civil society into the Council. Although the Umbrella movement ended with no result, we need to focus on political reform, as that will decide the power of Legislative Council members, of Hong Kong governance, and ultimately, Chinese governance.”

I ask him if this is a shift away from street protest.

“No”, Wong fires back. “Civil disobedience is still useful in the fight for issues that do not directly affect the status or stability of the mainland, whether that’s the fight for standard working hours or protests over the New Territories [a controversial town development plan]. But the problem is when we need to fight for universal suffrage, which impacts on Hong Kong’s sovereignty and relationship to China.”

Wong is adamant that this is a turning point for the democracy movement. “Over the past twenty years, we have always been guided by the terms of the handover of Hong Kong to China – that we can achieve universal suffrage under the constitution.”

A link between the student movement and the Legislative Council elections must be built, Wong tells me. “If we cannot build a movement larger than the Umbrella protest over the next two years, then which side will have more bargaining power? It’s clear that this depends on how many seats we get in the Council, and the influence we have in that institution.”

Still, I ask Wong why he focuses on political concepts like suffrage and self-determination, rather than social issues: the fact that Hong Kong is one of the most unequal places in the world. And does universal suffrage offer the vote to the city’s migrant workers, who are routinely abused every year?

This will be a long war for us.
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“Universal suffrage is the key to solving all of these problems,” Wong says. “The difficulties we face in fighting to adopt the minimum wage, standard working hours and so on – these are not because we are failing to achieve a majority. It’s because only 50 percent of the Council is directly elected. Without universal suffrage, how can we achieve a better quality of life, and make progress in labour issues and social welfare?”

Wong argues that the left has traditionally always been weak in Hong Kong. While a left-wing tradition in Europe is currently being rediscovered and renewed by young movements, the left in Hong Kong has long been inchoate since it was ripped apart by police during the 1967 riots. For Wong, the goal for now can only be liberal democracy.

That impacts how we should situate Hong Kong in the wider arc of twenty-first century global social explosions. The Hong Kong protests mobilised a mass movement to lay siege to the city’s financial district, preached nonviolent protest, reclaimed urban space, and is in large part the outcome of a global phenomenon: the graduate with no future. Its DNA comes straight out of the Occupy Wall Street gospel. Meanwhile, the establishment continues to speak the language of triumphant neoliberalism that is itself a striking echo of the former colonial regime. But Wong is having none of that.

“We are fundamentally different,” Wong says. He is keen to clarify that the Hong Kong protests shared nothing with other global struggles, whether OWS or any of the current movements raging across Europe. “Occupy Wall Street was fighting for an end to capitalism. But in Hong Kong, we are not even talking about the right or the left. We are talking about the foundation of society itself: the right for everyone to have the vote.”

A study of the protesters, conducted in October 2014, might back that up, with the overwhelming majority stating that their motivation for joining the protests was to obtain “genuine universal suffrage”, rather than improving their economic circumstances. “Of course the housing crisis and job prospects are driving factors,” Wong says. “But it’s more basic than that. We need a liberal society where everyone has the right to vote.”

Joshua Wong. Demotix/PH Yang. All rights reserved. Joshua Wong. Demotix/PH Yang. All rights reserved.Still, I struggled to understand Wong’s disavowal of the global Occupy movement. And after I spoke to Wong, I was concerned to hear from those who would strongly disagree with his interpretation of the Hong Kong crisis.

Activist Lala Pikka Lau agreed to speak to me. “I don’t mean to dismiss everything that Joshua Wong suggests, and I must credit him for going against the OCLP faction leaders, but I don’t find his politics particularly effective in analysing the problem of Hong Kong,” she says.

“Joshua Wong focuses on universal suffrage as if it’s a miraculous cure for Hong Kong’s economic and social problems. But what do we really mean by democracy? Too often, democracy is reduced to a specific kind of administrative system,” Pikka Lau continues. “When all the political energy is drained down to ‘having the vote’ or not, I simply think we are missing the point”.

The Umbrella protests were always dispersed across Hong Kong’s hyper-dense urban architecture, from the multi-lane highways of Admiralty district (the focus of western media attention) through to the more residential area of Mong Kok. Lala Pikka Lau spent most of her time during the protests last year carrying out anthropological fieldwork in the latter site. Here, the protesters – often working-class activists and anarchists – shared a more radical analysis of the crisis in Hong Kong.

“The reason why people are suffering is not only because we don’t have universal suffrage, but because of our particular place within capitalism. When land is a commodity, Chinese capitalists can invest in Hong Kong and push our rents up,” Pikka Lau says. “Universal suffrage may help redistribute resources, but it’s only curing the symptom, not the problem. And don’t forget those who don’t have the vote – like migrant workers. Will universal suffrage bring them justice?“

Although student activists have often positioned themselves as more radical than the ‘pan-democrat’ liberals, they too are prone to a tendency towards what Sebastian Veg calls “the naïve idealization of the law as a depoliticized tool”. In doing so, they stifle more radical possibilities.

“During the first few days of the movement, I actually saw graffiti that said ‘demand nothing, occupy everything”, Pikka Lau remembers. “But when all the political leaders – Joshua Wong and OCLP – started talking about universal suffrage, they got all the media attention, and all other debates slowly died.”

Joshua Wong remains adamant that Hong Kong’s protest generation must fight under the terms of suffrage and democracy. And he goes even further than that. “After the Occupy movement, it is clear that the basis for democracy and universal suffrage is self-determination,” he tells me. “The terms of the handover to China have been broken already. We cannot see any possibility for the Communist Party to adopt universal suffrage under Hong Kong’s Basic Law. So now is the time to fight for self-determination.”

The terms of the handover to China have been broken already.
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There is no doubt that Joshua Wong’s call for self-determination is incendiary, fundamentally at odds with the older generations of Hong Kong’s pan-democrats. “Most moderates,” Chan Kin-man told me, “regard independence as unrealistic.” But for Wong, the cause of self-determination is an inherent part of decolonisation. “Self-determination has always been the right for every colony after empire,” he says. “But the problem is that in 1971, after China’s re-entry into the UN, Hong Kong was forced out of the list of colonies. We were denied our self-determination.”

But while Joshua Wong’s voice is a change from the old liberal guard, there are plenty of critical voices to his left. “What will political independence bring us, if we continue following capitalism?” Lala Pikka Lau asks. Activist Wong Kit agrees: “we are perpetually avoiding the real question of how Hong Kong’s crony capitalism can function equally well, whether it’s part of China or not.”

There is a worrying air of sinophobia, Wong Kit says, “in the way that Joshua talks about China. It’s a very one-dimensional picture which allows him to base his views on a moralisation of politics, neglecting the economic and international-political context.” But ultimately, “Joshua’s ‘problems’ are the intellectual limits of political discourse in Hong Kong. It’s very common to be ignorant about China in Hong Kong”, he tells me.

This imperative to assert either a ‘pro-China’ or ‘anti-China’ line has become an essential part of political discourse and rhetoric in Hong Kong, and for Wong Kit, “it’s a dogmatism that sabotages the real political-economic conversation that could and should happen.” In turn, it produces a lack of political alternatives in Hong Kong.

Joshua Wong. Demotix/David Smith. All rights reserved. Joshua Wong. Demotix/David Smith. All rights reserved.“If we want Hong Kong to have rule of law, then we don’t want to be part of mainland China,” Joshua Wong says. “If we ignore self-determination then in 2047 [the expiration of the Basic Law agreement under which Hong Kong passed to China], China will seek to return rule to a ‘one country, one system’ basis,” he tells me, “or even a ‘one country, two systems’ basis but without judicial independence and separation of powers for Hong Kong.”

But how does Joshua Wong intend to sell concepts of universal suffrage and self-determination to Hong Kong’s working class families? “Of course not everyone in Hong Kong is interested in democracy, suffrage, and civil disobedience”, he admits. “But the mainstream understand that they don’t want to be directly part of the mainland”. Wong is demanding that this sentiment be aired via a process of referendum.

We don't want to be part of mainland China.
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“People want a quick answer to the question of why Hong Kong is fucked up,” Wong Kit tells me. “And Joshua Wong will tell you it’s because we don’t have democracy. But it’s like a ‘short circuit’, translating a rather complicated political-economic problem into merely a political problem.”

And that’s the hard bit. This conceptual disconnect was a major reason behind the protests stalling last year. Even though activist Glacier Kwong also believes that “we need ideas and concepts to drive and support our work”, abstract concepts alone won’t help solve the problems. “Joshua Wong is not doing enough,” she says.

Uprisings are never perfect, not all protests are progressive, and when they end, we must always ask: what kind of legacy has been left for future struggle? “When the opportunity arrives,” Chan Kin-man tells me, “the grievances towards Beijing will explode.”

Hong Kong’s millennials recognise that it falls to them to seize back their future. But they remain conflicted, deeply so, over where to turn.

About the authors

Joshua Wong is the founder of the Hong Kong student activist group Scholarism, and a leading figure within the city’s Umbrella Movement. He was named one of TIME magazine’s “Most influential Teens of 2014”. He tweets: @joshuawong1013

En Liang Khong is assistant editor at openDemocracy. He has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Prospect, Frieze, the New Statesman, the Daily Telegraph, the New Inquiry, 1843, and the Financial Times. He is the recipient of Oxford University's C.V. Wedgwood award for History, and is the 2008 BBC Young Composer of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @en_khong and read more of his work here.


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