What you need to know
Blacklisted in much of Asia but welcomed in Washington: as the world gets to know Joshua Wong, the 20-year-old political activist just hopes to make a difference to Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) was worried. It was October last year, and he was detained after landing at Bangkok International Airport, unable to contact a lawyer, his parents or the Hong Kong government.
“I was afraid I would be the next Gui Minhai (桂敏海), and be kidnapped from Thailand and taken to China,” he says.
Gui, a Swedish citizen, was one of a group of five booksellers from Hong Kong who went missing in 2015. He was abducted in Thailand and reappeared later on Chinese state television, but remains the only group member in detention in China.
Luckily for Wong, 20, whose leadership during the 2014 student uprising in Hong Kong and ongoing activism has kept him in the spotlight, his detainment in Thailand was promptly made public by a local activist and immediately drew international media attention. After 12 hours waiting by himself, unaware what was happening outside his cell, he was on a plane back to Hong Kong.
“In the detention cell I wasn’t able to call anyone, just stay in the room by myself. It was quite depressing and I felt downhearted.”
Had he not been so well-known?
“I can’t imagine what would have happened,” he says.
Wong believes the episode demonstrates the importance of the international community's support towards Hong Kong’s political activists who challenge Beijing’s influence in the Special Administrative Region.
“It is quite ironic; I am holding the passport of Hong Kong SAR, under China, while I use this passport to go to Bangkok, I can’t get any safety or security from China,” he says. “It let me learn a lesson about the importance of freedom.”
Wong’s invitation to speak at a prestigious Thai university is the sort of engagement that has become common since his role as one of the young leaders in Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement. As he travels the world, he encourages people to learn about Hong Kong’s democracy movement and China’s increasing interference in Hong Kong society and politics.
Arguably, Wong's getting under Beijing’s skin. Thailand aside, in 2015 he was refused entry to Malaysia; a presentation delivered via Skype to a conference in Singapore in November last year led to a police investigation; and, Wong and a colleague in Hong Kong political party Demosistō, Nathan Law (羅冠聰), on Jan. 7 were met on arrival into Taipei by hundreds of rowdy pro-China protesters – a triad-linked man in Taiwan was later arrested for attempted assault. Wong again counts himself lucky; on Jan. 8, Law was physically assaulted on his return to Hong Kong.
“I was not hurt because I took the flight back to Hong Kong around noon, because I had an examination in the evening, otherwise I might have been hurt with Nathan.”
Wong has been blacklisted from traveling to many parts of Asia where China’s influence appears to be strongest, but he is, perhaps, most at risk at home – the abduction of Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua (肖建華) from Hong Kong by Chinese officials on Jan. 27 is the latest reminder of Beijing’s apparent disregard for Hong Kong autonomy.
“In Hong Kong, it is hard for us to ensure our personal safety,” Wong says. “But it doesn’t mean that we can step backward. If we step backward, we will just give them more incentive to use the same method to hurt other activists or politicians in Hong Kong that support democracy.”
Still, Wong suggests, such attacks do little to help Beijing’s cause.
“It just gets more people standing on our side,” he says. “Because they crossed this ‘bottom line’ of the people in Hong Kong when the mobs and the gangsters hurt Nathan in the airport. It just gets more people supporting our side.”
He notes that “even some pro-Beijing legislators” in Hong Kong have condemned the attack on Law.
A week after the attack on Law, Wong was back in Taipei on a less-publicized visit, and Taiwanese authorities took his presence in the country seriously. When he took media interviews at a café down a quiet alley near the city’s business district, the room was packed with more than 20 police officers wearing plain jackets, but failing to be inconspicuous. He left with a motorcade.
While the need for security is certainly “uncomfortable,” Wong says he is not afraid of the potential for future attacks.
“It is not a death threat," he says of the assault on Law.
A star rising
After creating a Facebook group to oppose pro-Beijing changes to Hong Kong school curricula at 14, Wong went on to lead a rally of tens of thousands on the streets of Hong Kong and later help found Demosistō. Too young to stand for office, he is now carving out a role as something of an international representative for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
In November 2016, he was in Washington D.C., meeting with members of Congress and the Senate on Capitol Hill, and successfully lobbying to have the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act introduced to Congress. If passed in its current form, the law would require the U.S. president to identify persons responsible for the surveillance, abduction, detention, or forced confessions of certain booksellers and journalists in Hong Kong, and other actions suppressing basic freedoms, and to freeze their U.S.-based assets and deny them entry into the U.S.
In announcing the act on Nov. 16, 2016, Senator Marco Rubio said, "The importance of this legislation was again impressed upon me today after meeting with pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who became the face of the Umbrella Movement for many in late 2014. Joshua is an impressive and thoughtful young man who, along with his fellow activists, represents the future of Hong Kong – a future that must not go the way of Beijing's failed authoritarianism and one-party rule.”
Wong was back in the U.S. last month, where a documentary profiling his fight against Beijing – “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower” – was screening at the Sundance Film Festival,. Wong’s international notoriety looks certain to get a further boost after the film was picked up by online streaming service Netflix, which has close to 100 million subscribers worldwide.
And this week he is in London, speaking at several events including at a forum with Gui Minhai’s daughter Anglea Gui, and meeting with British lawmakers in a bid to get them to pay closer attention to the former U.K. colony.
While it all sounds impressive, given China’s global economic importance and the West’s long-demonstrated unwillingness or inability to challenge Beijing on human rights and democracy issues, can Wong really make a difference?
Wong allows that he has to be “realistic and pragmatic” on this question.
“I admit there is a barrier and a restriction because the Chinese market is the most attractive thing for different countries,” he says. “I am not saying that introducing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act can make a significant change in the world immediately. It is just a good starting point for us.”
He notes that he has only been involved in international advocacy work “for just 2015 and 2016.”
“And within two years the Senator has promised to introduce a policy act. I think it is good progress,” he says, adding that U.S. policy on Hong Kong has been unchanged since 1992.
“I believe some similar law or act can be applied in different countries," he says.
Setting the record straight
Another key part of Wong’s role is helping the international audience distinguish between the different political camps and navigate the many idiosyncrasies of Hong Kong politics. For instance, Wong is often incorrectly labeled as “pro-independence” or “localist," despite his stated aim of seeking the right to self-determination.
“It is important to let people know the difference because if you are upholding independence it is really hard for the international community to support you immediately. Or, if you uphold violence, the politicians at the international level, it is hard for them to be interested or motivated to support you,” he says.
“Sometimes the localists will use racist terms, or racist ideology to emphasize on the conflict between Hong Kong and China. If you use racism it is hard to get people’s support. Why we will position ourselves as center-left and let people know about our socio-economic approach, is also with the consideration about how to get the international community behind us.”
While he believes people in Hong Kong should be able to debate the idea of Hong Kong independence, he thinks that at the international level the focus should be on democracy and self-determination.
Still, he acknowledges that the idea of Hong Kong independence has grown over the past year.
“Emotionally, people want Hong Kong independence […] but at the pragmatic level, is it the suitable time for ‘Hong Kong independence’ to be at the top of the political agenda? I don’t think so.”
Wong’s trip to the U.K. coincides with legal proceedings brought by the Hong Kong government against Law and three other pro-democracy legislators, in a bid to remove the group from the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament.
As Hong Kong political analyst Suzanne Pepper wrote last month, “Beijing’s loyalist allies tried but failed to block the new post-Occupy ideas during last September’s Legislative Council election. So Beijing is now trying to do the next best thing: attempting to nullify the results of that election by disqualifying newly-elected legislators on the basis of loyalty oath criteria.”
Several candidates were barred from contesting the election on the same grounds via a new confirmation oath, Pepper noted, and two legislators have been disqualified after rewording their swearing-in oaths in an insulting manner – a decision upheld by the Hong Kong courts after Beijing issued a rare "interpretation" of Hong Kong’s constitution.
“The Hong Kong government, led by outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, went back to its judges in search of a ruling that will punish four more newly-elected legislators,” Pepper wrote. “The Hong Kong court is being asked whether they should be disqualified due to their loyalty oaths, which did not meet the new standard Beijing laid down after they took them.”
The oaths of all four were initially accepted by the presiding officer, with two being permitted to retake, Pepper added.
The case, which demonstrates the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the complicity of the Hong Kong executive, and the upcoming election of the next Hong Kong chief executive give activists a chance to once again “motivate people to come to the street," Wong says.
David versus Goliath
Wong is used to the spotlight; he can stay on-message through an hour-long interview. And while it is serious work, he certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
As South China Morning Post reported last week, “As the subject of an award-winning documentary by an American filmmaker, Wong is relaxed enough to laugh off rumors of his involvement with the CIA. ‘Oh it’s quite funny,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘I think even pro-China legislators would not believe I’m really a CIA agent. After my girlfriend read the newspaper where it said I’d been trained by the U.S. marines, she wondered why my body size is still far from Tom Cruise or others. ‘Could you do more exercise?’”
He clearly sees how he is framed by Western media – neatly articulated in the documentary title, “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower.”
“Of course, in the U.S. there is still the Cold War ideology; the Communist Party is the Goliath and I am the David, and they just put me in this context,” he says.
With a smile he recounts one think tank leader in New York, who upon greeting Wong, shook his hand and said, “Welcome to the Free World.”
While he sees some of the coverage about him as “too extreme," he’s cognizant that the attention can be put to good use.
“I know the influence of China is rapidly increasing in recent years, and the China market will be the highest priority for a lot of countries in terms of foreign affairs. But I just consider whether I can get any progress by my involvement. I think within the previous one or two years [that progress] is better than expected," Wong says. “I just don’t want to waste the opportunity I have."
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Editor: Olivia Yang