A price to pay
A young activist’s fight for free elections in Hong Kong
At age 18, Joshua Wong became the face of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a protest urging the Chinese government to let Hong Kong residents elect their own leader as promised by the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets of the city’s financial district for 2½ months. Beijing refused to back down: A 1,200-member election committee dominated by China sympathizers elected Carrie Lam as chief executive in 2017.
Wong co-founded a political party, Demosist?, served more than two months in prison for his role in the protests, and continues to champion democracy for Hong Kong today. On April 3, Wong appealed a three-month jail sentence resulting from his attempt to stop the clearance of a protest site in 2014. The court has not yet handed down a judgment on the appeal. I interviewed 22-year-old Wong, currently free on bail, in mid-March.
How did you first get involved in politics? When I was 14, Beijing tried to introduce the patriotic education curriculum in Hong Kong. It forced students to embrace the Communist Party of China. I organized street demonstrations and mobilized more than 100,000 people to occupy the streets. We hoped to convince government officials it’s time for them to respect the voice of students and young people.
We successfully forced the government to withdraw the brainwashing school curriculum. Later on, we fought for free elections in 2014 with the Umbrella Movement. Many of us have been imprisoned. We hope to fight for Hong Kong’s freedom, whether political freedom, freedom of the press, or religious freedom. We want people to be aware of how Hong Kong is different from mainland China.
Have people become disillusioned since the Umbrella Movement? Some people may feel a bit downhearted or depressed, but it’s time for us to learn what it means to persist. It’s easy to join the protest when it’s the popular thing to do. But when the situation is unfavorable and we are locked up in jail, we still need to let people know that the Hong Kong people deserve democracy.
In Hong Kong only half the seats in the Legislative Council are directly elected. [The other half are determined by special interest groups, many of which are pro-China.] In every election, the democracy camp gets more of the open seats than the pro-Beijing camp. Even though we have the majority of Hong Kong’s support, some people become hesitant to join after more activists are sentenced and jailed.
‘It’s easy to join the protest when it’s the popular thing to do. But when … we are locked up in jail, we still need to let people know that the Hong Kong people deserve democracy.’
How does the mindset of young people differ from your parents’ generation? The baby boomer generation lacks a sense of belonging to Hong Kong because many were born in mainland China and recognize themselves as Chinese citizens. But my generation was born here and grew up here, so we say we are Hong Kongers. With the interference of Beijing, we recognize the importance of maintaining the difference between Hong Kong and mainland China.
The threat of China within the Asia-Pacific is a significant issue. If we look at how the Chinese government set up reeducation camps in Xinjiang, how it suppresses democracy in Taiwan, or how it hopes to erode the high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong, we see how the threat of Beijing is not only inside mainland China but around the world. Australia and other Western countries are also starting to realize how China’s Communist regime is trying to influence them.
Do any mainland Chinese young people support Hong Kong’s democracy movement? Last summer I published my prison diaries. Some young people from Shenzhen came to my book signing and told me they support us. It’s hard for me to estimate how many mainland Chinese support us, but I know some dissidents in mainland China still realize the importance of democracy. They find ways to jump over the Great Firewall.
How has your Christian faith affected your activism? My English name is Joshua because my parents hoped that I’d become like Joshua in the Bible. It’s a good name, because Joshua took over after Moses and led the people to leave Egypt, to leave authoritarian suppression. I was raised in a Christian family and realized that justice is a core value in the Bible. When I read the Bible, I realize there should be certain moral principles in this society and we must respect people’s uniqueness and their individual rights. They should not be controlled by anyone.
Why should Christians be active in the democracy movement? As Christians, we are not only responsible for preaching the gospel and then waiting to go to heaven when we die. We need to be bringing heaven down to earth. That seems like a totally idealistic dream, but if we want that dream to come true, how should we let people know that as Christians we don’t focus only on trying to increase our salaries and better our careers? We ask, how can we do more for the people around us?
What will happen to religious freedoms in Hong Kong? Religious leaders are the target of the Communist regime. The government’s removal of crosses from churches in mainland China shows its fear of religion, especially Christianity, for it could influence people to realize the only one they should obey is Jesus, not the regime. That contradicts Chinese Communist Party propaganda.
I don’t know what will happen, but I already see some red flags regarding religious freedom in Hong Kong. I’m not saying there is direct suppression, but self-censorship is already a norm. Some Christian leaders keep silent on certain issues to build good relations with the Communist regime so they can continue entering mainland China.
What is the future of Hong Kong? It is in the hands of the new generation. The Sino-British declaration said “one country, two systems” would last for 50 years from 1997 to 2047, so how can our generation prepare to uphold freedom and democracy? The Communist Party is the largest authoritarian regime in the world, so it’s not easy for us to overcome in the short term. And never before has a city with 7 million people been able to form a democracy under the rule of the Communist Party. If it happens, it would be a miracle. How can we turn the impossible to possible, and have it result in a miracle? That’s what we must try to do.
What issues are you working on now? The Hong Kong government has proposed to amend the extradition law, so that if Beijing decided to arrest someone in Hong Kong, it would only need the chief executive’s approval. I think it’s terrible because even though I’ve been tried in Hong Kong court and jailed in a Hong Kong prison, if one day Beijing says I violated certain Chinese laws, I could be extradited to mainland China and face punishment there. It not only affects citizens in Hong Kong, but it could affect any tourist visiting Hong Kong.
You have an ongoing court case regarding your role in the Umbrella Movement protests. It could lead to your reimprisonment. How do you feel about that? That’s the price we need to pay. Whenever a country goes through the process of democratization, activists are always locked up in jail. You’ve never heard of any country or city that suddenly had democracy without anyone paying the price.