Newsmaker: Joshua Wong

The Hong Kong teenager hit the front pages this week after starting a hunger strike. There’s clearly a steely spirit behind the cherub face, but is there also a hint of dictator?
Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

Joshua Wong cuts an implausible figure as the tough, scheming militant intent on testing how far he can push the Hong Kong authorities in the pro-democracy student protests.

Even the images and caricatures illustrating his own blog reinforce the impression of a slightly geeky scrap of a youth with a floppy Beatles haircut and rectangular spectacles.

He looks as if what he really needs is to be sat down in front a hearty meal. Instead, this week, Wong, 18, began a hunger strike in his latest act of defiance in the mass outbreak of civil disobedience by young protesters demanding change in the former British colony.

After his day of fasting, aware of the risk of damaging his body but adamant he would take only water, he tweeted his determination to stand firm, demanding an “immediate restart of dialogue on political reform”.

Wong has already spent nights in police cells after arrests over the demonstrations that began in Hong Kong in September. He faces an obstruction charge in the New Year and his bail could be revoked if he’s found to be in breach of restrictions on his movements and conduct.

It’s a record of dissidence that secures Wong a place in the modern history of young pro-democracy activists, from the Prague and Paris springs of 1968 to Tiananmen Square and the earliest stirrings of the Arab Spring.

If his physical appearance is almost childlike, he punches well above his weight. A new film documentary, Lessons in Dissent, captures his oratorical flourish in an earlier struggle, as he rouses the passions of thousands of followers, leading them in feverish chants against the Hong Kong administration.

Fast-forwarding to the bitter “Umbrella Movement” demonstrations, bringing together factions campaigning for free elections, the Journeyman production company introduces its film in dramatic terms: “Pro-­democracy protests have paralysed Hong Kong – are we on the brink of a second Tiananmen?”

But it would be wrong to suggest that the students have Hong Kong officials noticeably quaking in their boots. Even Wong’s hunger striker is dismissed in disparaging terms. As temperatures slumped, breaking a long, hot spell, the government’s chief executive, C Y Leung, a frequent target of Wong’s anger, responded as if dealing with a troublesome child’s tantrum. Students, he advised, should “take care of their health, especially in this cold weather”.

Yet Wong’s gesture, though criticised by some figures in the protest movement as ineffectual or even a first sign of surrender, is typical of the approach that has made him a symbol of the disaffection of Hong Kong young people.

The densely populated region may rank high in the world rankings in this year’s Global Cities Index, fifth behind New York, London, Paris and Tokyo. But not everyone is content with Hong Kong’s economic realities: it has one of the world’s highest per capita incomes, but also record levels of income inequality.

And then there’s the clamour for greater democracy. As the leader and co-founder of the student activist group Scholarism, Wong seeks the introduction of universal suffrage resembling the “one country, two systems” formula of the late Deng Xiaoping when he was China’s head of state in the early 1980s.

In Deng’s vision, specific regions of China such as Hong Kong – then under British administration – would be part of the People’s Republic, but enjoy a high degree of autonomy under their own political and economically capitalist models.

The students claim Beijing has cynically diluted Deng’s legacy by insisting on the right to vet candidates for elections in 2017, effectively reneging on what was agreed at the time of Britain’s handover in 1997.

It’s difficult to imagine the authorities have Wong in mind when complaining about “violent radicals” responsible for escalating tension and confrontation on the streets. He says he believes only in peaceful struggle.

But while this stance sets him against other, more-bullish protesters, state Chinese and pro-government Hong Kong media still depict him as an extremist hellbent on making mischief without a coherent grievance.

In traditional Chinese circles, where suspicion of the West runs high, it may do his cause no service that the New York-based Time magazine listed him among its Most Influential Teens of 2014. He has also been on the cover of the international edition of the publication and was among contenders nominated in its Person of the Year poll.

Wong was born in Hong Kong in1996 into a middle-class family of devout ­Christians.

He was diagnosed with dyslexia from a young age. But his refusal to allow it to become a significant impediment is testified by the ubiquitous iPad, his relentless Facebook updating, even when in meetings, and a penchant for writing short essays for other students to debate.

According to Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper, he took an early interest in social issues, perhaps a consequence of accompanying his parents on visits to poorer Hong Kong communities from the age of about 6.

“[My father] told me that I should care for the abandoned in the city,” Wong told the South China Morning Post, when still only 15, making a name for himself as a protest leader. “They had not heard of the gospel, and were living solitary and hard lives.”

He joined demonstrations against a high-speed, cross-border rail link in 2010. After launching Scholarism with a fellow-student, Ivan Lam Long-yin, he campaigned against a plan for moral and national education to promote communism and nationalism while decrying democracy and republicanism.

Acquiring a taste for the power of the mass protest, Wong organised hunger strikes and led the occupation of government property, calling on Leung to stand down. At its height, the movement against the nationalist curriculum brought 120,000 demonstrators out onto the streets. The plan was withdrawn.

Just how much studying he does, and how well he juggles educational needs with the demands of political activism, is less well-documented.

He attended the United Christian College and has started a degree course in politics and public administration at Hong Kong’s Open University. But at least one member of academic staff there has acknowledged that his attendance at lectures may be affected by “other commitments”.

It’s clear that his heart lies in protest. But one observer of Chinese society, Malcolm Moore of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, wrote that it took Scholarism a year of constant activism before it attracted serious attention.

“When I first met him, they were singing a protest song, and it was like bad karaoke, and I was unimpressed,” the writer was told by Matthew Torne, who produced Lessons in Dissent and spent a year charting Wong’s progress. “But then he opened his mouth and spoke and I thought: ‘Gosh, he’s only 14.’”

As often happens when the spotlight falls so brightly on one figure in a movement, there have been signs that some young protesters are disillusioned by Wong and his co-leader of Schoralism, Oscar Lai.

Professor Ronald Yeung, his politics tutor at university, told The Telegraph: “There are lots of kids who do not like him anymore. Scholarism has imploded and there are lots of rows. Lots of the key kids dropped out because they say it is being run like a dictatorship. They accuse Joshua and Oscar Lai of being the politburo of Scholarism.”

So far, however, Wong seems happy to shrug off criticism, just as he rejects his star ­status.

“Five years ago, it was inconceivable that Hong Kong students would care about politics at all,” he said in an interview with CNN, before he began shunning western journalists. “But there was an awakening when the national-education issue happened. We all started to care about politics.”

Some opinion polls suggest that the students’ demonstrations and occupations have only minimal support from the public, though an unofficial referendum did reveal more enthusiasm for Scholarism’s proposals for electoral reform.

Like a seasoned politician, Wong takes it in his stride.

“I don’t think our battle is going to be very long,” he said. “If you have the mentality that striving for democracy is a long, drawn-out war and you take it slowly, you will never achieve it. You have to see every battle as possibly the final battle – only then will you have the determination to fight.”

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Published: December 4, 2014 04:00 AM


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