Joshua Wong Is The Hong Kong Teen Leading a Political Revolution
When I turned 19, the two most important things in my life involved figuring out which restaurant would illegally serve me alcohol and what degree at community college I should switch to next. For 19-year-old Joshua Wong, his goals are a bit different. Born and raised under the shadow of Communist China in the democratic city of Hong Kong, he’s spent over a fourth of his life on the front lines of protests. Two years ago, he became the face of the Umbrella Revolution, where he started a student activist group called Scholarism and helped lead a massive sit-in student protest, which lasted from September 26th to December 15th, 2014.
As protesters shielded themselves with umbrellas against tear gas canisters and police batons, the eyes of the international activist community looked toward the city. The vast amount of attention made Wong a worldwide face of youth activism and garnered him international praise—he even covered TIME, and was nominated for the publication’s Person of the Year 2014 feature.
Despite being arrested three times already, Wong continues to fight alongside his fellow students to gain independence from the Chinese mainland that has maintained control over his home for decades. Thanks to a “One Party, Two Systems” method of governance, China allowed the city of Hong Kong to establish democratic ideals to improve international trade as part of a 50-year plan that began in 1997—the year before Wong was born. Now in his fifth year of fighting for democracy, Wong has harnessed the power of activism and anti-China public sentiment to push for a new goal: creating a new political party for the people and by the people called Demosistō.
When we made the trek uptown to meet the young activist at the Asia Society Museum a few blocks from Central Park last week, we weren’t sure what to expect. Wong was here for a United States diplomatic tour promoting his new political party and raising awareness about the situation in Hong Kong, yet when he walked into the pristine lobby, we barely recognized him. From his New Balance shoes to the buttoned up blazer and frozen yogurt he was spooning out of a cup, he would’ve blended in on any college campus. The only discernible difference was, of course, that he’s an internationally renowned activist who has done more as a teenager than most people have done in a lifetime. After he responded to at least a dozen messages, we sat down to talk about the state of politics in Hong Kong, what it means to be an activist in the age of the Internet, his favorite superhero, and more.
Tell me a little bit about Demosistō, the political party you just started.
We founded the political party last Sunday. We hope to fight for democracy and self-determination. Actually, Demosistō is also the first political party in Hong Kong to launch a crowdfunding campaign. In the past, most political parties in Hong Kong would just get funds from the big donors. Even if you ask some politicians, they will not know about crowdfunding. We hope to be the first political party to start this trend. I believe, being a politician or a political party, we have to demand to change the current system—we hope to change the political culture in our city.
We hope to build a crowdsourcing platform to allow people to raise their own proposal to let people, through a matching system like Airbnb, involve other people in campaigns to contribute and to strengthen civil society. We want to change the organizational structure of the political party.
“We’re not expecting ourselves to become superheroes. We are hoping that everyone can be Spider-Man.”
How did you get started with activism?
I started getting involved in social movements when I was 14 years old because Hong Kong hoped to implement patriotism into the curriculum and force every student in Hong Kong to embrace the Communism party of China. They wanted us to believe the one-party Dictatorship government is progressive, selfless, and united. We organized a demonstration, a high school student hunger strike, and we had a civil disobedience occupy action with over 120,000 people when I was 15 years old. We successfully forced them to withdraw the proposal.
That’s incredible! That means you’ve been protesting for five years already. Do you ever do normal teenager things?
I still have a normal life sometimes.
What do you do for fun?
Watch movies! When I go back to Hong Kong, it’ll be time to watch Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War in the cinema with my girlfriend.
Who’s your favorite superhero?
Spider-Man. I think he’s more human. Spider-Man explains the story of how a normal student in the university or high school bears the responsibility of being Spider-Man. At school he’s just a normal student and nobody recognizes him but, after school, he suddenly becomes a superhero. Iron Man is just a tycoon and Captain America and Superman are just American, politically-correct propaganda.
Do you have any other favorite movies besides superhero films?
The Hunger Games is one of our favorite stories. It shows disagreement with a dictatorship government. It’s a big inspiration for us.
Do you see yourself more as Spider-Man or Katniss?
I don’t think it’s suitable or appropriate to label myself as Spider-Man because, I think, we’re not expecting ourselves to become superheroes. We are hoping that everyone can be Spider-Man.
Going back to protesting, we have protests all the time here in the United States, but I assume it’s different in Hong Kong. What’s it like protesting against such a strong Communist regime to try and win democracy?
[Laughs] What we’re trying to do is create a miracle and make something impossible, possible. I think people can’t imagine that, in Hong Kong, if a book seller sells someone a sensitive book they can be suddenly kidnapped by China. You know the big leak of what tycoons and politicians have set up overseas companies? The Panama Papers? The press read them in Hong Kong and after one of the newspapers made the document their front-page headline, the chief editor was fired immediately. That’s the situation we face in Hong Kong.
It’s so hard to take corruption out of the government. The important thing about your movement is that you really just want fairness in Hong Kong.
Yeah! We just want everyone to have basic rights and be able to vote in the election. Right now, the chief executive of Hong Kong is chosen by Beijing and half of the legislative council is controlled by Beijing. They choose people who will show loyalty to the Communist Party.
Yeah and that’s been going on for decades. Do you think, in terms of creating change, this movement you’ve been part of has been the biggest student movement in Hong Kong thus far?
Well, in the anti-patriotic eduction movement, 120,000 people joined us. With the Umbrella Movement, more than 200,000 people took part. In the last five years, things have changed a lot. Five years ago, no pop stars or artists would show their support to the movement.
Definitely. Even the act of protesting is really courageous. Now, your actions during the movement got you in the running for TIME magazine’s Person of the Year in 2014. How did that impact your life?
Well, it was a starting point for letting Hong Kongers reach the international community and make sure international committees keep focusing on the situation in Hong Kong. We’re really afraid that after the end of the Joint Declaration in 2047, Hong Kong will become a “One Country, One System” government and [that] rule of law, judicial independence, Facebook, and all of that will be eliminated immediately. That’s why we need to make sure the international community stays concerned about the situation there.
That would be a huge blow to your generation in Hong Kong since you’ve grown up most of your life with the Internet. Speaking of which, do you think it’s become easier for young people to become politically active now than it was before the Internet?
Actually, a networking system will be an important platform for us to get people motivated to join the campaign. We are one of the few activist groups or political parties in Hong Kong to use Instagram and Snapchat to deliver our message. Old politicians there don’t even know what Instagram or Snapchat is. [Laughs] They’re quite outdated. We hope to let politics enter pop culture and let young people in Hong Kong become more familiar with, or interested in, politics.
I think that’s the first time I’ve heard of Snapchat being used as a political tool, actually. Do you think Twitter is still a relevant tool for political revolutions?
Twitter is [a] platform we use to reach foreign people but, actually, people [in] Hong Kong don’t use Twitter.
In terms of your own life, are you famous when you’re at home because of your Person of the Year nomination?
No matter if I won TIME’s Person of the Year or not, people already recognize me because, even though not everyone in Hong Kong read’s TIME magazine, everyone read the newspaper during the Umbrella Movement. I’ve already accepted it as part of my life.
I’m sure it’s been nice to blend in more in New York. You’ve been in the city for a few days now. What’s been your favorite part so far?
I haven’t had a normal tour of New York so I can’t answer that. I’ve got a full schedule every day. [Laughs]
If you had a chance to have a normal day in the city, what would be the first thing you’d do?
Probably go buy Spider-Man toys.
Images shot exclusively for Milk by Ben Taylor. Additional image via The Japan Times.
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