The street demonstrations in Hong Kong these past few months have been, in a way, a dramatic payoff in the political fight that Joshua Wong has been waging since childhood. The biggest protests in Hong Kong’s history, they are daily proof of a profound popular defiance against Beijing. But even as the battle for democracy in Hong Kong has surged to a new degree of seriousness Wong has often hovered above the action or worked on the edge of the crowd.
Wong, who rose to international fame as a skinny, bespectacled, teen-age figurehead of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, spent the first weeks of summer serving a prison sentence for earlier acts of civil disobedience. When he got out, in June, he made his position plain: the new generation of leaderless demonstrators didn’t need him at the helm.
Besides, Wong had other plans. Now a twenty-three-year-old university student, he’s been taking part in the protests but saves most of his energy for projects away from the streets. He travelled last month to Taiwan, Germany, and the United States to shore up international support and ask trade partners to use ongoing negotiations to pressure Beijing. He testified in Congress as lawmakers prepared to vote on the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which passed the House last week. He wrote opinion pieces in foreign newspapers. He also announced a campaign for local office, telling supporters that grassroots community activism was crucial to reshaping the political landscape.
Wong’s evolution from defiant teen-age protester to international lobbyist and emerging politician is more than an interesting biography. The struggle over Hong Kong’s fate runs through Wong’s life, and Wong’s life runs through the struggle. He was born in October of 1996, a year before the former British colony was handed back to China in a deal that guaranteed the “special administrative region” half a century of relative autonomy. He will be fifty when that time runs out and Hong Kong enters an unpredictable era. Nobody knows whether, come 2047, Hong Kong will maintain its unique freedoms or be forced into closer alignment with mainland rules. This year’s demonstrations are the latest outbreak of a fundamental clash that will keep flaring in different forms, shaping the lives and possibilities of Wong’s generation into old age. Wong is the child of past spasms of unrest and a likely architect of those to come.
“As long as Xi”—Jinping—“rules China, we don’t see the endgame. We don’t see the end of Xi,” Wong told me this summer. “It seems to be an infinity war. It’s our infinity war.”
I First met Wong on a rain-dark afternoon in August. He slouched against a wall outside a diner in citic Tower, the eponymous waterfront landmark housing China’s largest state-run conglomerate, and typed intently on his phone. A slight and unassuming young man wearing baggy shorts and a backpack, he reminded me of a shy teen-ager waiting to get picked up from chess club. We went into the diner, where Wong hardly glanced at the menu before telling the server, “I want everything.”
“You do?” I asked.
Wong laughed, and I realized that I was his unwitting straight man, playing my part just as he’d hoped. “Here,” he said, pointing to a menu choice of beans, eggs, and various breakfast meats.
Having landed his moment of levity, Wong got serious and stayed that way. He frowned in concentration as he moved deliberately from one topic to the next, in a manner that suggested he was checking off a mental list of points he didn’t want to forget. “We now have a sugar-coated rule of law,” he said. “I mean, it seems like we have a certain system, but the reality is that the national system of China can interpret or override any law they want.”
Wong’s first large-scale political fight came when he was still in high school. The Hong Kong government had moved to impose mandatory national-education classes into the schools that would, among other things, praise the Communist Party of China. Wong considered the proposed curriculum reform a naked effort to brainwash the youth of Hong Kong. He and a couple of other students took to the streets and passed leaflets to commuters. Their movement mushroomed until Wong found himself at the head of a powerful citywide outcry against the proposed education reform. The students occupied the national-government headquarters, and, after a ten-day sit-in, the government relented and shelved the new curriculum.
Next came the Umbrella Movement, the 2014 protests in which crowds staged long-running sit-ins, demanding the right to vote in elections free from Beijing’s interference. By that time, Wong had secured his place as one of the most influential leaders in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, with all attendant perks and indignities. He was arrested and imprisoned on charges of illegal assembly, accused on the mainland of being a U.S. agent, and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since then, Wong has undergone a peculiar inversion: as his fame and influence grow overseas, some say his sway on the street has diminished. Much of Wong’s work these days is aimed at an international audience with the hope of winning badly needed support from abroad. “Whereas during previous campaigns he was seen by many as a leader, this time he’s not been seen that way by protesters on the ground,” Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based writer who researched the demonstration movements for his book, “City of Protest,” said. “He’s seen that way by the international community. He’s taken on this role as a sort of statesman or international spokesman.” Dapiran added, “He’s filling a need.”
The city’s perpetually fragile calm began to crack anew this past winter, when the Hong Kong government proposed a bill that would have allowed fugitives to be extradited to mainland China. The prospect of Hong Kongers vanishing into the mainland’s opaque network of courts and jails loomed as a galvanizing threat. People took to the streets, subway stations, and airport by the hundreds of thousands. They have vowed to keep demonstrating until the government meets a list of demands, which include an investigation into police brutality; the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam; and the right to vote in elections without the meddling of Beijing.
As weeks turned to months and frequent clashes broke out between demonstrators and riot police, resolve hardened on both sides: Lam and her allies complained of “rioters” marauding through the streets; demonstrators accused her of presiding over a thuggish police state. By September, when Lam announced the withdrawal of the extradition bill, it was already too late to calm the streets.
Wong used to talk about “our summer of discontent,” but summer is long gone. Weekends in Hong Kong are now characterized by sporadic and unpredictable street battles. Police have deployed choking clouds of tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons against demonstrators, and attacked subway commuters who looked like they might be protesters. On one particularly awful day, police fired a live round straight into the chest of a demonstrator. For their part, front-line protesters have set fires, vandalized businesses, tossed Molotov cocktails, and beaten up both police and people they suspected of being Beijing-backed agents.
When I asked Wong about this fall’s growing violence, he bristled. “That’s the incentive of self-defense and self-protection,” he said. “I think how the Hong Kong police attempt to murder people and to attack journalists and first-aid workers, and the arbitrary arrest, search, and crackdown on people, is far worse than anything done by protesters.”
Lam recently invoked emergency powers in an effort to control what she called “extreme violence.” Availing herself of authority that has gone untouched for half a century, she outlawed the face masks used by demonstrators to shield their identities—part of the ethos of the anonymous, leaderless movement.
A few days after Lam’s announcement, I spoke to Wong by phone as he rushed through the streets, heading to a demonstration. He was worried the government would cancel the election, he said, or even shut down the Internet. He sounded distracted and upset. I asked if he was in a hurry.
“Of course! Every day we’re in a hurry now,” he said. “We already announced the emergency state, and the banks closed already, and people are storing food in their home, and there are people lining up just to get cash from the A.T.M. machine. It’s really hard for me to connect with you.”
Even if street fighters no longer regard him as their organizer, the authorities still treat him like a threat. Wong was arrested, most recently, in August. He was walking to the metro station when he was grabbed off the street by men in plain clothes, stuffed into an unmarked car, and taken to the police station, where he was charged with unlawfully organizing a rally and released on bail. A week later, on his way to Germany, he was detained at the airport for violating the terms of his bail and held overnight before continuing his journey.
His conflicts with officials have also followed him abroad in recent years. A trip to Thailand, where Wong was scheduled to speak to university students about democracy, was thwarted by Thai immigration officials, who stopped him at the airport and put him back on a plane to Hong Kong. He was also turned away at the border of Malaysia, where the national police chief explained to reporters that the government didn’t want to anger China. In Singapore, a social worker was convicted and fined for organizing an event where Wong—speaking from abroad—gave a live speech via Skype.
Wong’s candidacy for district council, like most of his moves, is partly designed as a provocation. He’s testing officials in Beijing and Hong Kong—will they let him run, or will he be disqualified? “Just let them disqualify me, and then see how many people will come into the streets,” he said. “If they disqualify me, they need to pay the price.”
The district-council elections, scheduled for November, are shaping into another volatile arena in which aggrieved Hong Kongers will battle for the city’s future. Pro-democracy candidates like Wong have launched campaigns across Hong Kong, and young people have been eagerly signing up to vote. The number of registered voters between eighteen and thirty-five is now up more than twelve per cent from last year, according to figures released by Hong Kong’s electoral officials.
Election officials last week dispatched a pair of letters to Wong, demanding that he clarify his position on Hong Kong’s independence from China. The government has argued that candidates who argue for separation or independence from the mainland should not be allowed to run for office, since the region’s status as a part of China is integral to Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Wong has insisted that he’s asking for universal suffrage, not independence, but some of his political foes remain skeptical.
Perturbed by the letters, Wong and other pro-democracy candidates have prepared replacement candidates to take over their campaigns in case they are disqualified. Meanwhile, Wong has repeatedly taken to Twitter to warn that Lam might use emergency law to cancel the election. “Gov is planning to postpone or to suspend the election, under the pretext of ongoing social unrest,” he tweeted on Friday night.
Wong knows that time is not on his side. He argues that China, under Xi, is already starting to unravel the arrangement known as “one country, two systems”—Hong Kong as a part of China, yet governed by a more lenient set of rules. He points to Lam invoking emergency measures as a sign that Beijing will continue to seek greater control over Hong Kong in coming years.
There is every reason to believe that, as long as he stays in Hong Kong, Wong will get old along with this fight. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he will get old inside of this fight. “If we do nothing, things will be even worse,” Wong said. “They’re already winning, so we have nothing to lose. That’s why we say, ‘If we burn, they’ll burn with us.’ ”