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Long read: The boy who took on Beijing

Thomas Coughlan visited Hong Kong to meet leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, still fighting for independence nearly five years on. 

When I met Joshua Wong last Tuesday, he was getting ready to go to prison. 

He’s just 22, born in Hong Kong 1996, just 11 months before the territory’s handover to China in July 1997. 

Wong was one of the leaders the 2014 protests that came to be known as the Umbrella Movement, after the umbrellas protestors used to shield themselves from police pepper spray and water cannon. 

He met me at a Starbucks in the city’s central district, the same area brought to a standstill by the thousands of people who took to the streets during the movement.

Wong is short, with close-cut hair. He arrives late. He’d been talking to his lawyer about next Wednesday’s court appearance. While Wong clearly didn’t want to go back to prison, he didn’t seem overly perturbed about the likelihood of being sent back next week. 

Last year he sued the justice secretary over claims he had been made to squat naked “like a dog” during a strip search in October 2017. The judge ruled against Wong, finding the prison guards “more credible”. 

“When I was less than 21 years old two years ago they required me to squat and do marching exercises every day,” he told me. 

Borrowed place, borrowed time

Wong is the standard bearer of generation of Hong Kongers born around the time of the handover, who have spent their lives growing up in the shadow of China, but who have been, until recently, largely free of its influence. 

Hong Kong island, and a small slither of territory connecting it to mainland China, was ceded to Britain after two Opium Wars. Hong Kong Island and a part of the mainland called Kowloon were ceded in 1840 and 1860. In 1898, Britain acquired a 99-year lease on another part of the mainland, the “New Territories”.

As the 20th century wore on, the question of what to do when the lease expired became more pressing. The New Territories were integrated with the rest of Hong Kong and it was clear that whatever happened when it expired, they were likely to remain with Hong Kong. 

The clock was ticking to 1997. Richard Hughes, a longtime Hong Kong foreign correspondent, called the city a “borrowed place,” on “borrowed time”. During the 20th century, China’s power waxed, as Britain’s waned. It became clear to most that Britain’s control of the city depended to a large extent on China’s patience. Britain could no longer garrison the city appropriately, and China, had it really wanted to, could at any moment send the People’s Liberation Army over the border to take the city. 

Apart from periodically directing mass migrations of refugees across the border, Hong Kong was left alone.

But China was in no rush, and knew it only need wait until 1997 to take the city back without firing a shot. The city’s fate was sealed in the 1984 Sjino–British Joint Declaration, which confirmed the city would be handed back to China in July 1997. 

However, the city would preserve its unique way of life, British legal system, and freedoms, including freedom of the press and freedom of speech for 50 years. The agreement was unpopular at the time. British newspapers cried “betrayal”. 

Most people, discussing the event in retrospect, knew China’s slow erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms would come before the 50 years were up — few believed it would happen so quickly. 

Already, freedom of speech has one important caveat, described by China as a “red line”. President Xi Jinping warned Hong Kongers not to threaten Chinese sovereignty of the territory. 

Speaking to Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive on the 20th anniversary of the handover, Xi told Hong Kongers that challenges to China’s “national sovereignty and security” and the power of the central government “is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible”.

But questioning China’s sovereignty underpins the territory’s political landscape. Hong Kong exists in a partial democracy. 

Its leader, the Chief Executive, is elected by a 1200-member electoral college, themselves appointed by roughly 220,000 voters who form Hong Kong’s professional elite. Its legislative council has 35 seats elected by establishment professions (like accountancy and medial professionals) with another 35 for everyone else. 

Thanks to Xi’s red lines, politicians campaigning on an independence platform are effectively barred from running.  

But even before Xi drew those red lines, China’s powerful voice could be felt in the city. A “patriotic” curriculum rolled out in 2012, included textbooks like The China Model, which characterised the ruling Chinese Communist Party as “progressive, selfless and united”, while avoiding altogether the less progressive, selfless, and united moments of the CCP’s history, notably the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.

Into the streets 

When Joshua Wong, then just 15, saw the changes being made to the curriculum, he was horrified and, like many teenagers, took to Facebook to protest against what he called the “patriotic brainwashing education”. 

His Facebook group, called Scholarism, soon had 100,000 members. The group grew even further, to the point where it staged a protest against the curriculum, forcing the Hong Kong government to walk back its plans. 

People who have observed Wong and the Scholarism movement say it is remarkable for the way it channelled a street protest movement into a political party. As early as 2013, Scholarism issued a statement urging a civil nomination for the 2017 Chief Executive election. Candidates are chosen from a limited pool of Beijing loyalists. 

A 2014 decision from the Chinese mainland notionally allowed universal suffrage, but stipulated that “the Chief Executive shall be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong", and that "the method for selecting the Chief Executive by universal suffrage must provide corresponding institutional safeguards for this purpose”.

These safeguards affirmed what many Hong Kongers had long suspected; the democratic process was rigged to ensure a permanent union with Beijing The decision lit a match under the city’s nascent youth movement. Joshua Wong mobilised Scholarism. Wong was joined by another young protestor, Nathan Law, the acting President of the Lingnan University Students’ Union.

Nathan Law helped start the Umbrella Movement and was eventually elected to the Legislative Council. Photo: Thomas Coughlan.

The decision was handed down on August 31 and by September 1 students had begun mobilising, with the first major protest initiated by Agnes Chow on September 13. On September 26, Wong and Law helped organise a mass protest along Tim Mei Avenue, close to the Central Government Complex, a postmodern square of glass, with an eery hollowed-out centre, where Hong Kong’s Government meets. 

On September 26, New Yorker Adam Cotton coined the term “Umbrella Revolution” after the umbrellas borne by protestors against police. The term was picked up in The Independent newspaper a few days later. It was downgraded to “movement” from “revolution” over concerns the latter was too violent.

Law told me he absolutely didn’t anticipate the movement getting so big. But it was just two days later, on the afternoon of September 28, that Law realised he’d helped start something massive. 

“People gathered on the roads on the main runway because the police were blocking them from entering the protest area so they just fielded out and then gathered on the runway,” he told me.

“It was quite massive,” he said. “Before then we didn’t have any massive occupation”.

There were moments of fear too.

"People were constantly telling us the Liberation Army was coming to town, there were lots of these messages," he said.

Protestors take to the streets in the Umbrella Revolution. Photo: Getty Images

But the protests were eventually cleared, having fallen short of achieving their goal. Undeterred, Wong, Law and Chow founded a political party, Demosistō, derived from “demos”, the Greek for people, and the Latin “sistō” or “to stand”. The party would put Law up for election to the Legislative Council in 2016 — Wong was too young to stand. 

As with the evolution of Scholarism into the Umbrella Movement, Demosistō was founded as a way of feeding the energy from the protest movement into the city’s democracy. 

Law said it was “time to inject the youth energy and inherit the spirit of the Umbrella Movement into the council”.

He described the heady moments of the 2016 political scene. 

“It was very vibrant in terms of political culture, people were discussing political agendas and open to new ideas, independence, political determinations,” he said. 

Ben Bland, who used to cover Hong Kong for the Financial Times before joining the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney, told me that while young Hong Kongers faced challenges common to other millennials like high rent and stagnant wages, their problems were far more acute.

“The intensity of the problem is much much higher in Hong Kong,” he said.

Rents in the city are astronomical. Last year the average apartment price per square metre was HK$182,000 or roughly NZ$32,000. That’s more than three times the price per square metre of Auckland apartments during the peak in 2017. 

Bland said the cost of living feeds into every aspect of life in the city. 

“The property prices that don’t just affect your ability to buy a house but every time you by a coffee or lunch or go to see a chiropractor or whatever it may be, a large chunk of the price which may be quite high is effective for rent,” he said. 

The problem isn’t just confined to price, however. Hong Kong has long been famous for its Tycoons — property who ruin the city in a kind of informal cartel. Bland believes this contributes to a more acute sense of economic injustice in the city.

“The sense of economic injustice is higher because of the oligopolistic structure of the economy where you have a handful of tycoons who control a lot of the land supply and basically seen to be as one and collaborating with the Hong Kong and central Chinese government,” he said. 

Layered on top of that dissatisfaction is a nascent Hong Kong identity emerging against the monolithic cultural power of the mainland.

There’s growing hostility to Mandarin being used in the city instead of Cantonese and English. Mainlanders, as they’re known in Hong Kong, are perceived as rude and uncultured by the city’s residents. Common complaints range from tactless displays of wealth displayed by corrupt bureaucrats using the city to launder money, to public spitting.

Other fears are more common: Mainlanders are increasingly well educated, and compete with Hong Kongers for jobs and space on the landlocked territory. 

Bland told Demosistō’s success rested in being able to harness some of the discontent that spilled into the streets in 2014, and turn it into a political movement. 

“The way these guys took a movement and then turned it briefly into an electoral force, the fact they took a movement from the streets into organised politics and then had to pay the price for doing so is unusual,” Bland said. 

“It’s been quite a surprise to see a real youth movement form and then be elected by adults. These guys have had to pay a really high price. It’s not unique but its unusual for a developed country,” he said.


But the party’s success was short-lived. Law was disqualified from the Legislative Council over a controversy over his swearing-in. 

Although Law’s oath was validated by the clerk of the Council, a later ruling from Beijing found it to be out of order, and Law was disqualified from sitting. Just one month later, Law was in prison, serving time alongside Wong for his involvement in the Umbrella Movement. 

Demosistō is now an activist group. With its central policy being self-determination, it faces the hurdle of Xi’s “red lines” should it field any further candidates for office. Wong won’t move from what the party stands for. 

“We demand a referendum, we demand a choice,” Wong said.

“We think that it’s our right,” he said. 

Wong is also hopeful that something like the Umbrella Movement could happen again. 

"It could happen again, the question is how could we be more well-prepared, it could still move far from our imagination,” he said. 

Law, however, is less sure. The heady days of 2016 evaporated in the heat of Beijing’s subsequent crackdown.

“I think it’s unlikely to happen in the near future,” he told me.

"The political suppression was so severe and people will honestly not be getting used to that. They are still digesting and trying to make sense of everything. So I think people now are getting a bit helpless,” he said.

But he hasn’t given up hope. 

“I always remind myself that I have to be optimistic in the long-term future because if you lose your long-term hopes then basically that’s the end of your advocacy, you become dramatic and cynical,” he said. 

Mary Hui, a journalist I spoke to in Hong Kong - one of Wong and Law's contemporaries - said she was persuaded to self-censor a personal reflection she had been writing on the movement. 

Hui returned to Hong Kong having studied at Princeton and following an internship at The Washington Post. She wanted to write a reflection on Victor Mallet, a journalist for The Financial Times, who was expelled from the territory, presumably for allowing a pro-independence speaker to come to the city’s famous Foreign Correspondents' Club, where he was president. 

“I wanted to write a personal essay,” she said, about the experience of “coming back to work as a freelance journalist and seeing the dismantling of the free press”.

But she talked to colleagues, her family and her boyfriend, and changed her mind. 

“Their take was: sounds like a great idea, but you might not want to write it right now especially as a 24-25 year-old journalist who has just come back who is trying to establish a career."

She’s reflective about the experience now. In fact, she retold it to a crowd of journalists at the Foreign Correspondents' Club at panel on press freedom in Hong Kong. 

“I was really angry with it at the time,” she said.

“I thought it was really hypocritical to want to be part of a bigger effort to be part of free press and then self-censoring,” she said.

But that’s the thing about Beijing’s red lines. They’re constantly shifting and in the absence of any certainty, politicians, and journalists in the public tend to self-censor conservatively.  

Wong appears exhausted, possibly from constant litigation. His sentences occasionally hang unfinished in the air, and his concentration can waver. But of all the people I spoke to in Hong Kong, he was the most optimistic for its future. 

He’s internationally famous now and travels regularly to give speeches to other democratic movements, much to the ire of the mainland which is suspected of using diplomatic pressure to have him barred from other countries. Yet the international travel has not stoked a desire to leave the city and its problems for good. 

“I love Hong Kong,” he said, “When you have a sense of belonging to your own town, your city, you have no reason to leave this place."

Plus, he has reason to stay.

“Hong Kong restaurants - the milk tea! You can’t find such delicious food [overseas]. When I traveled to the US, I tried their burger and the extra large coke - then I missed Hong Kong a lot”. 

Funding for this report was contributed by the Asia New Zealand Foundation 

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