Meeting Joshua Wong

Joshua Wong, Hong Kong Pro-democracy activist, spoke to TIME on August 16, 2017, a day before a ruling on his 2014 occupation of the Citizen Square. He's facing immediate imprisonment if judges rule against his favor. - Photo by Aria Hangyu Chen for TIME

August 11, 2018

It is Saturday morning and I am about to meet up with Joshua Wong at the Bricklane Café right across from Hong Kong’s Legislature where Wong’s political party has its office. It turns out that Wong has already been at work that weekend morning and I am not the only visitor he will see that day.

I am curious to hear from him about the current state of Hong Kong politics. My initial introduction to it had come about in 2010 when I taught a course in political philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. My students alerted me then to the intricacies of Hong Kong’s political situation and took me along to some of their demonstrations. They appeared rather tame compared to what I had seen of such events in Europe and California. But they proved more effective than I had imagined at the time. In 2014 the “Occupy Central” movement and the student-initiated “umbrella movement” disrupted the city for months in a call for more democracy and this led to hard confrontations with the police. Two years ago, on a visit to Hong Kong University, I had met up with some of the activist leaders including Joshua Wong. At the time they were reasonably hopefully that change might come. They got into electoral politics and some of them were actually elected into the Hong Kong legislature. But since then, the establishment and the government in Beijing have hit back hard.

When Joshua strides into the café, I am struck by how young he looks – and is. Not yet 22, he had become a political activist at the age of 15. I ask him what had got him to do so. And he replies that it was probably his religious Christian upbringing which gave him a strong sense of social responsibility. He is clearly an immensely committed and idealistic figure; one who sees himself as an activist rather than a politician. “Though I realize that one is at times forced to engage in politics. You have to make compromises and deal, for instance, with some politician with whom you otherwise little in common.” A[art from organizing some gigantic political demonstrations, Joshua has founded a political party (“Demosisto”) and serves currently as its general secretary. He has also already been in prison for his activity and is for that reason barred from running for office for the next few years. He has been denounced by establishment forces in Hong Kong and the government in Beijing, he has also been feted in the West, and, unlikely as it sounds, has already been proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize.

All this has not made him lose his cool. He is serious and astonishingly self-contained. He also knows that the road ahead for him will be hard. When I ask him how he sees his future, he speaks first of all of more activism. Only when pressed, does he allow for the possibility that one day he may be working in some other field and possibly even find himself abroad. He is not afraid of being locked up forever. “I am too well known for that,” he is confident. “But one day, trying to come back from abroad, I may find that the door is locked and I am not allowed to return.” Right now, though, he can’t travel abroad. The authorities hold his passport and he is not allowed to cross any border.

In 2017, Wong’s Demosisto party fielded a series of successful candidates for the legislature. The fact that it did, reveals that the party has strong backing in Hong Kong’s population. But the success also alerted Demosisto’s opponents and this has led to serious setbacks for the pro-democracy movement. There have also emerged tensions within it about the strategies to be followed at this point. Wong’s own formula is clear: persist and survive. He is lucky that he is in a position to do so right now. I ask what his expectations are for Hong Kong – in the short and the long run. Wong concedes that Hong Kong is unlikely to become more democratic as long as Xi Jinping is in power. He sees, instead, an educational task ahead. “Our generation had to learn about Tiananmen Square and that knowledge motivated us. Now we need to teach the generation coming after us, those born after the year 2000, about the umbrella movement and its goals.” Much of that work will have to be done via the internet. Demosisto is, in fact, not a political party in the traditional sense. It consists of a small group of activists and a large number of followers who can be reached by facebook, twitter, and Instagram. Wong grants: “I now realize that we should have had more money when we first got going in order to promote our cause more effectively. And I am even more aware today of this need to have the financial means to keep things moving forward.”

But what is his hope for keeping the movement alive? What is the best outcome to be expected? Wong shies away from such questions. Democracy is, after all, first and foremost an ideal and as such never realized in a complete pure form. So, what kind of democracy can the people of Hong Kong reasonably hope for? I am not sure of the answer and I suspect that Joshua is in the same boat.

I suspect that those in the independence, localism, and democracy movement (not all the same) are also deep down motivated by the fact that Hong Kong has been separated for more than a century from China, that it has developed in its own unique way, that it is more international than mainland China, and that it feels this difference most strongly. Living in Hong Kong, I realized that the locals entertained, in fact, plenty of prejudices against the people from the mainland. A Hong Kong lady once asked me whether I understood that the announcements on the subway where in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. “Mandarin,” she said with a sigh, “so unnecessary.” In such conversations, I have tried to explain my own background. The Rhineland, where I was born, was part of the Roman empire two thousand years ago and we still feel different from the Germans across the Rhine even though we have been officially part of the German state for more than 150 years. Something like this may happen also to Hong Kong. Hopefully, its identity, vitality, and spirit of independence will persist when the “One country, two systems” agreement comes to an end – which will be only too soon, fifteen years from now.

It is impossible to predict how successful Joshua Wong’s activism will be. Will it still, in the long run, transform Hong Kong into a stronger democracy? Will it, perhaps, even contribute to China, as a whole, becoming more openly democratic over time? Or will it, at least, help to maintain Hong Kong democracy at its present, imperfect level? The prospects are uncertain and I can’t help worry about Wong’s personal destiny. Clear in my mind, however, is how uniquely admirable his moral and political commitments are.

You can support Wong and his cause financially from anywhere in the world. Find out more on their website

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