What you need to know
"The problem is, we are facing the largest communist regime in the 21st century. Sometimes, the largest enemy towards democracy is not the regime or the ruling class. It is the fear in our heart."
Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) is one of Hong Kong’s best-known political activists. After creating a Facebook group to oppose pro-Beijing changes to school curricula at 14, he has since led a rally of 100,000 people, been arrested, spoken at Harvard University (and in Taiwan), and still faces jail time for his role in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution.
Amid rising criticism from localist and pro-independence factions, and despite being too young to run for office, Wong has launched a new party, Demosistō, which aims to fight for self-determination for Hong Kong.
On June 5, Wong met with The News Lens International at Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, to discuss his plans to wrest control of Hong Kong from Beijing.
The News Lens: Last night was the anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre. Where were you?
Joshua Wong: I was at Victoria Park, promoting the importance of self-determination and tackling the problem of Hong Kong’s future. We tried to let the people who were attending the candlelight vigil at Victoria Park know the importance of tackling the sovereignty and the constitutional problems.
More and more of the new generation might try to join the assembly at CUHK [Chinese University Hong Kong]. I respect them. I think we should still show our demands of the communist regime, [that is] to bear responsibility and pay the price for the Tiananmen Square incident. I think we still have common ground; of course I disagree a bit with the presidents of CUHK or HKU [Hong Kong University] student unions, but it doesn’t mean that I will discredit all of the assemblies outside of Victoria Park.
TNL: In a recent interview with the New Bloom Magazine blog, you said the conditions in Hong Kong were not yet ready for self-determination. Can you talk about what sort of conditions you envisage needing domestically for that to happen?
J.W: First, we need to get the consensus from the Hong Kong people on self-determination. If we can’t get the majority of Hong Kongers, or at least the supporters of the pan-dems, to agree on the agenda of self-determination, it will not happen. That is why we hope to demand and generate a referendum during the next executive leadership election. While only 1,200 people can vote in the election, we hope to hold the referendum just like the HKU political system to set a motion ‘Hong Kong people gain the right to a full referendum to have self-determination to determine the sovereignty and constitution of Hong Kong after 2047.’ This is the motion that I hope to pass. Next year in March we hope to, through the referendum, have the consensus of people – if they agree or disagree on independence – on the right to self-determination. That is the first step.
The second step is we need to visualize how to increase the conditions for self-determination – no matter if it is economic, cultural, education, industry development and different aspects – and we need to draft a Hong Kong charter. Just like a lot of the charters seen in the world in the past century in the process to achieve democracy, it needs to visualize and clearly state our vision on self-determination. Because the current constitution in Hong Kong – Basic Law – lacks legitimacy, we hope to draft the Hong Kong Charter and establish our vision of building the ground for self-determination and prove that Hong Kong can achieve economic autonomy.
TNL: What about the conditions you see being necessary internationally?
J.W: The third step is to gain international support. The reason Hong Kong was successfully handed back to China is because Beijing put in a lot of effort to lobby the United States, Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and countries around the world to agree on the [Sino-British] Joint Declaration. Actually, in that whole process there was no possibility that Hong Kong people could have any involvement. So it is really important to get the international community’s support, whether it is politicians or activists in NGOs, to ensure that Hong Kong people get the right to self-determination.
TNL: How will that support come about and how long will it take?
J.W: It is a long-term battle from now until 2047. I think Taiwan is one of the examples for us in seeing how to face the Beijing factor or interference from China. The goal for us this year is to get the people demanding self-determination on sovereignty and constitution to enter the Legislative Council, to get the legitimacy to start the democratic self-determination movement. In the future, to have international lobbying, we need to have a referendum to choose lobbyists representing Hong Kong’s self-determination movement. Maybe four years from now we can choose a few representatives. They may gain a few hundred thousand or even a million votes, representing the consensus of Hong Kong people on self-determination. With this legitimacy they can travel overseas.
TNL: What is your response to the pro-independence groups, like those at CUHK last night, who see talk of self-determination as not going far enough?
J.W: If, through the procedure of self-determination, we do not achieve independence, then the only way to achieve independence is military revolution. If they are not ready, or not expecting military revolution, I think the more important thing at this stage is building the consensus on self-determination. For myself, I think that independence will be an option in the referendum. If we can’t gain self-governance and autonomy under PRC [People's Republic of China] rule, the next train of the movement might be independence.
TNL: If the pro-independence movement grows, will that be a problem for you in building a consensus around self-determination?
J.W: If more people agree on independence, and agree that we are not capable of organizing a military revolution, then the way to demand independence is through self-determination. That would not affect our plan.
Different people have different positions. Demanding independence is not a problem. My position is persuading some of the people that want independence to at least first agree on the agenda of self-determination.
TNL: What about the fracturing among all the groups, which are all essentially 'anti-China' and support the same end-goal?
J.W: It is the fragmentation of the decentralization process in Hong Kong. Under the current electoral system – the proportional representative system – it is not easy for us to build a large party like the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] in Taiwan. We still need to try our best. I don’t think that if a referendum happened, any pro-independence party will disagree on ensuring the right of self-determination.
TNL: You are 19, and you have been in politics now for about five years. How did you become politicized at that age?
J.W: The government tried to impose changes to [school] curricula and I thought that was the time for me to do something. I opened a Facebook page and everything went on from there.
TNL: But, most 14 year-olds wouldn’t do that.
J.W: A lot of adults tell us that if you want to change society, first you need to get a degree and enter an institution to be an administrative officer, and in the future you can be the chief executive and you can change the world. Otherwise, just get a good a degree, be a lawyer, be rich and donate to NGOs or social enterprises and then you can change society.
They may think young people are still in the learning process, [and] they are not capable of being involved in public discussion or politics. I let them know 'you need to respect the youth.’
TNL: What do your parents think?
J.W: I told them I couldn’t expect the 100,000 people from Occupy action. We just tried to set up a Facebook page as a starting point. We didn’t expect the result one year later – the hunger strike, confrontational protest and Occupy action with civil disobedience.
TNL: How have your views changed in the past few years?
J.W: As a starting point, I was just trying to do something to contribute to society. Later, I realized that politicians might think politics only benefits if [they are] calculating [political] interest. What we hope to present to the Hong Kong people is: politics should have hope inside of it. We will not only have anger and calculation. We can still find hope inside politics and inside the movement.
TNL: How comfortable are you with your party being considered pan-democrat?
J.W: We do not identify ourselves as pan-dems. If we are pan-dems, that means we will just fight for universal suffrage under ‘one-country, two systems.’ What we try to do is break through and show that fighting for democracy is not limited to the control of Basic Law under ‘one country, two systems.’
TNL: You have said previously that Hong Kong has the best chance to achieve democracy within the PRC. What hope do you have that China will let this happen?
J.W: If you ask rationally, ‘Is it possible for us to gain universal suffrage, direct democracy, in this moment?’ I would say no because we don’t have enough bargaining power. A political movement is the process to turn something that is impossible to be possible. It is just trying to find the hope and then create a miracle.
Instead of relying on a roadmap set by the communist regime, we try to set our own agenda. That is why we have the three conditions that we hope to meet: the referendum to ensure the right [to a full referendum], a common charter to ensure the autonomy and the power, and international lobbying with the endorsement of the Hong Kong people. This is the roadmap for us in the democratic self-determination movement.
At this time, we don’t have bargaining power. But in the previous 30 years, we just believed in the handover with democracy, but it failed. This is the next stage for us to continue to fight.
TNL: Have you looked at other movements and parts of the world to help form this plan?
J.W: Of course I have seen examples and read some of the books to learn about the history and path for people to fight for democracy. Sometimes it is useful. But the problem is we are facing the largest communist regime in the 21st century.
So, how to tackle the fear inside people’s hearts is the most important problem. Sometimes, the largest enemy towards [achieving] democracy is not the regime or the ruling class. It is the fear in our heart.
TNL: How do you defeat it?
J.W: From my involvement and motivating people; I tell people if I am not afraid of paying the price, why don’t you join us and fight?
I know that if I am convicted on June 29 for inciting an unauthorized assembly during the Umbrella Movement – because I climbed the wall and entered Citizens Square before the Umbrella Movement happened on the September 26, 2014 – my classmates will have a trip and a summer holiday, but in my summer holiday I may be in jail.
TNL: Do you have any idea what the sentence could be?
J.W: I don’t know. I don’t have experience. I don’t know if any previous case can be referenced.
TNL: I would like to return to discussing your safety shortly. But first, from what you have seen from the Umbrella Movement and the Mongkok Fishball Revolution in February, what do you think about another uprising in Hong Kong?
J.W: After the Umbrella Movement, people say that non-violence is not useful anymore, and [that] violence is useful, because violence can put more pressure on the government to let us gain something. A lot of people believe in this.
But I think the Fishball Revolution in Mongkok proved that is wrong. Because no matter whether it is the Umbrella Movement with non-violence or Fishball Revolution with violence, both of the movements gained the same result: nothing changed.
If you really think that using violence is useful, I will just try to respect your opinion. But the fact is, whether you are progressive or radical, or if you burn rubbish bins, the movement does not have a roadmap. If the people demand independence, what is the process from now to reach independence? They need to answer that. The pan-dems think we can still push forward to achieve democracy under a 'one-country, two systems' by political reform procedure. They didn’t answer how they can push forward political reform. I didn’t see any clear answer.
TNL: The pro-independence groups say that as China’s influence on Hong Kong increases, tension will again rise on the streets, do you agree with this?
J.W: More and more tension will happen. But what is the result of the tension? I am not sure. I think the most important question they need to answer is: how can they achieve independence?
TNL: But would tension and activism on the streets threaten your more pragmatic, long-term strategy? Because it could incite a firmer stance from Beijing.
J.W: It will increase the social instability and put more pressure on the government institutions. But after more riots happen, will it really push people to agree on independence? I doubt it. For example, after the Mongkok Fishball Revolution, I don’t think suddenly there was a rapid increase in people agreeing on independence.
TNL: You mentioned your court case earlier. As you go about your daily life, do you fear for your own security?
J.W: If I do not fight in this moment, the thing I am more afraid of is 10 or 20 years from now whether Hong Kong is safe or not. That is why we still need to continue the fight.
TNL: But right now do you feel like you are putting your own safety at risk?
J.W: Not really. Compared to the human rights activists in Mainland China, or the activists [who faced] political prosecution in Taiwan before the founding of the DPP, like [Kaohsiung Mayor] Chen Chu (陳菊), or other activists that have really paid the price, this is not really a serious case. I can’t 100% ensure my personal safety, but it will not be a restriction for me to continue the fight.
TNL: One of the things I have noticed in the past few days in Hong Kong, regardless of the political party, is that there is a lot of talk about Hong Kong identity. Is this important for you in terms of building support for Demosistō?
J.W: If people are really gaining the sense of belonging to Hong Kong, it is a great thing. The problem is, I don’t agree with some of the localist perspective. They always quote the nationalism claim that if you agree on a set of core values then you will identify as part of the Hong Kong people. It seems to be a normal statement, but who can define the core value of Hong Kong?
If you think that democracy is the core value of Hong Kong, and only people who agree on the core value can be Hong Kong people, then Hong Kong will only have a few million people – from seven million people. If you define it by who agrees that Hong Kong is a nation [as] the core value and only people who agree on the core value can be Hong Kong people, then Hong Kong will just remain for 10,000 people.
The ironic thing is, gaining a sense of belonging is fine, but if you think that agreeing on a set of core values will be the only way to justify anyone to be a Hong Konger or not, it is just censorship. We need to respect that even some of the people who have lived in Hong Kong for more than 40 years may disagree on the Umbrella Movement, on democracy, on independence, even on rule of law, [but] they are still Hong Kong people. Some people, they moved from the Mainland to Hong Kong, and they agree on democracy. They are also Hong Kong people.
TNL: Some people in the localist or pro-independence movements say change needs to happen in the next five to 10 years because of the sheer number of Chinese immigrants to Hong Kong. Do you see the same time pressure?
J.W: Actually, if you compare the votes in the Legislative Council, the vote is six to four among the locals – six support democracy, and four support the pro-Beijing force. Even with the ratio of Mainland immigrants to Hong Kong, it is still similar.
It does not prove the immigrants from China will 100% support the pro-Beijing force. The more [frequent] situation is that they will not vote. I think the Mainlanders will be more conservative. They will not have an interest in voting.
Even Edward Leung Tin-kei (梁天琦), the localist leader, is an immigrant from China. [Alvin] Cheng Kam-mun ( 鄭錦滿) is also an immigrant from China.
Of course, if the immigrant policy is fully controlled by Mainland China, we are totally against and disagree with that.
The problem is, I don’t think Hong Kong people are really radical. In last year’s election still 45% of people voted for the pro-Beijing force.
TNL: It is still hard to think that if the number of immigrants rapidly increases that the 45% won’t become 55% to 60%.
J.W: If in the past 10 years the immigrants from China have seriously affected the election result, why have the pan-dems still remained with 55% to 60% of support? I think most of the immigrants do not vote. People always think that immigrants from China will cause interference in Hong Kong. It is true, but it doesn’t mean that it will really affect the result or the general public opinion. If their claim or statement is true, we would have lost the seats already.
TNL: You have just been overseas speaking at colleges in the U.S., including Harvard. What was the response like?
J.W: I just tried to raise the importance of self-determination, and let the scholars, students and academic field gain more interest in this topic. They were quite supportive.
TNL: You said in the New Bloom interview: “It’s not a question of being radical, but a question of macro international politics. How do you have enough strength to negotiate with Beijing?” So, how do you?
J.W: It is related to the bargaining power. And bargaining power is related to the consensus of Hong Kongers, the [constitutional] foundation for achieving self-determination and the international support.
If the economic development in Hong Kong is still controlled by Beijing, even if we gain the right to self-determination, it is meaningless.
I don’t really have a clear answer on how we can ensure that every country in the world will agree that Hong Kong should gain the right to self-determination, because it is related to international politics and related to the rapidly increased bargaining power China has got in the previous 10 to 20 years.
It is a long-term battle, but at least we have the roadmap.
TNL: You had a large following from your time leading Scholarism. For Demosistō, what do you feel like the level of support is?
J.W: People are quite supportive. Take yesterday [Saturday] fundraising outside of Victoria Park. We raised HK$450,000 (US$58,000). I think other political parties got around HK$150,000 to HK$200,000. I think the amount of donations we gained already proves that we have gained support. The amount of donations was higher than last year when I was still the convener of Scholarism.
TNL: What are your expectations for the September Legislative Council election?
J.W: I am not able to run in the election, because of the age limit of 21. But we still have two student activists to run in the election in two districts. Our goal is to get two of them to win.
I think the amount of donations a party gains at rallies and demonstrations proves whether they have support or not. Before, I was really afraid the amount of donations would drop, compared to when I was the leader of Scholarism. It was beyond my expectation, the donation rose from HK$330,000 to HK$450,000. With that increase I really think we gain the possibility to run in an election.
TNL: Any other thoughts on where you see Demosistō going in the short-term?
J.W: It depends on the next three months. If we gain those seats, or just one seat, or if we lose; that will give a really diverse result.
TNL: Finally, you are 19. It seems people in the pro-independence or localist groups are slightly older, maybe mid- to late 20s. Obviously people among the more established pan-dems are older again. Do you think these age differences are important?
J.W: Of course, compared to the old people, young people were more supportive during the Umbrella Movement.
Discussing the roadmap or strategy to achieve democracy in Hong Kong is not really related to generational diversity. We gain more support in the young generation. But I don’t think the way for us to continue is to struggle and argue between the two generations. It is: how can we link up the two generations on the same agenda?
No matter if the new generation agrees on independence or the older generation disagree, why don’t we first agree on the same consensus and fight for ensuring the right for self-determination?
TNL: And is that how you see Demosistō, as a uniting force?
J.W: We will try our best.