Joshua Wong plonks himself down on a plastic stool across from me. He is there for barely 10 seconds before he leaps up to greet two former high school classmates in the lunchtime tea house melee. He says hi and bye and then bounds back. Once again I am facing the young man in a black Chinese collared shirt and tan shorts who is proving such a headache for the authorities in Beijing.
So far, it’s been a fairly standard week for Wong. On a break from a globe-trotting, pro-democracy lobbying tour, he was grabbed off the streets of Hong Kong and bundled into a minivan. After being arrested, he appeared on the front pages of the world’s newspapers and was labelled a “traitor” by China’s foreign ministry.
He is very apologetic about being late for lunch.
Little about Wong, the face of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, can be described as ordinary: neither his Nobel Peace Prize nomination, nor his three stints in prison. Five years ago, his face was plastered on the cover of Time magazine; in 2017, he was the subject of a hit Netflix documentary, Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower. And he’s only 23.
We’re sitting inside a Cantonese teahouse in the narrow back streets near Hong Kong’s parliament, where he works for a pro-democracy lawmaker. It’s one of the most socially diverse parts of the city and has been at the heart of five months of unrest, which has turned into a battle for Hong Kong’s future. A few weekends earlier I covered clashes nearby as protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police, who fired back tear gas. Drunk expats looked on, as tourists rushed by dragging suitcases.
The lunch crowd pours into the fast-food joint, milling around as staff set up collapsible tables on the pavement. Construction workers sit side-by-side with men sweating in suits, chopsticks in one hand, phones in the other. I scan the menu: instant noodles with fried egg and luncheon meat, deep fried pork chops, beef brisket with radish. Wong barely glances at it before selecting the hometown fried rice and milk tea, a Hong Kong speciality with British colonial roots, made with black tea and evaporated or condensed milk.
“I always order this,” he beams, “I love this place, it’s the only Cantonese teahouse in the area that does cheap, high-quality milk tea.” I take my cue and settle for the veggie and egg fried rice and a lemon iced tea as the man sitting on the next table reaches over to shake Wong’s hand. Another pats him on the shoulder as he brushes by to pay the bill.
Wong has been a recognisable face in this city since he was 14, when he fought against a proposal from the Hong Kong government to introduce a national education curriculum that would teach that Chinese Communist party rule was “superior” to western-style democracy. The government eventually backed down after more than 100,000 people took to the streets. Two years later, Wong rose to global prominence when he became the poster boy for the Umbrella Movement, in which tens of thousands of students occupied central Hong Kong for 79 days to demand genuine universal suffrage.
That movement ended in failure. Many of its leaders were sent to jail, among them Wong. But the seeds of activism were planted in the generation of Hong Kongers who are now back on the streets, fighting for democracy against the world’s most powerful authoritarian state. The latest turmoil was sparked by a controversial extradition bill but has evolved into demands for true suffrage and a showdown with Beijing over the future of Hong Kong. The unrest in the former British colony, which was handed over to China in 1997, represents the biggest uprising on Chinese soil since the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Beijing. Its climax, of course, was the Tiananmen Square massacre, when hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were killed.
“We learnt a lot of lessons from the Umbrella Movement: how to deal with conflict between the more moderate and progressive camps, how to be more organic, how to be less hesitant,” says Wong. “Five years ago the pro-democracy camp was far more cautious about seeking international support because they were afraid of pissing off Beijing.”
Wong doesn’t appear to be afraid of irking China. Over the past few months, he has lobbied on behalf of the Hong Kong protesters to governments around the world. In the US, he testified before Congress and urged lawmakers to pass an act in support of the Hong Kong protesters — subsequently approved by the House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support. In Germany, he made headlines when he suggested two baby pandas in the Berlin Zoo be named “Democracy” and “Freedom.” He has been previously barred from entering Malaysia and Thailand due to pressure from Beijing, and a Singaporean social worker was recently convicted and fined for organising an event at which Wong spoke via Skype.
The food arrives almost immediately. I struggle to tell our orders apart. Two mouthfuls into my egg and cabbage fried rice, I regret not ordering the instant noodles with luncheon meat.
In August, a Hong Kong newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist party published a photo of Julie Eadeh, an American diplomat, meeting pro-democracy student leaders including Wong. The headline accused “foreign forces” of igniting a revolution in Hong Kong. “Beijing says I was trained by the CIA and the US marines and I am a CIA agent. [I find it] quite boring because they have made up these kinds of rumours for seven years [now],” he says, ignoring his incessantly pinging phone.
Another thing that bores him? The media. Although Wong’s messaging is always on point, his appraisal of journalists in response to my questions is piercing and cheeky. “In 15-minute interviews I know journalists just need soundbites that I’ve repeated lots of times before. So I’ll say things like ‘I have no hope [as regards] the regime but I have hope towards the people.’ Then the journalists will say ‘oh that’s so impressive!’ And I’ll say ‘yes, I’m a poet.’ ”
And what about this choice of restaurant? “Well, I knew I couldn’t pick a five-star hotel, even though the Financial Times is paying and I know you can afford it,” he says grinning. “It’s better to do this kind of interview in a Hong Kong-style restaurant. This is the place that I conducted my first interview after I left prison.” Wong has spent around 120 days in prison in total, including on charges of unlawful assembly.
“My fellow prisoners would tell me about how they joined the Umbrella Movement and how they agreed with our beliefs. I think prisoners are more aware of the importance of human rights,” he says, adding that even the prison wardens would share with him how they had joined protests.
“Even the triad members in prison support democracy. They complain how the tax on cigarettes is extremely high and the tax on red wine is extremely low; it just shows how the upper-class elite lives here,” he says, as a waiter strains to hear our conversation. Wong was most recently released from jail in June, the day after the largest protests in the history of Hong Kong, when an estimated 2m people — more than a quarter of the territory’s 7.5m population — took to the streets.
Raised in a deeply religious family, he used to travel to mainland China every two years with his family and church literally to spread the gospel. As with many Hong Kong Chinese who trace their roots to the mainland, he doesn’t know where his ancestral village is. His lasting memory of his trips across the border is of dirty toilets, he tells me, mid-bite. He turned to activism when he realised praying didn’t help much.
“The gift from God is to have independence of mind and critical thinking; to have our own will and to make our own personal judgments. I don’t link my religious beliefs with my political judgments. Even Carrie Lam is Catholic,” he trails off, in a reference to Hong Kong’s leader. Lam has the lowest approval rating of any chief executive in the history of the city, thanks to her botched handling of the crisis.
I ask whether Wong’s father, who is also involved in social activism, has been a big influence. Wrong question.
“The western media loves to frame Joshua Wong joining the fight because of reading the books of Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King or because of how my parents raised me. In reality, I joined street activism not because of any one book I read. Why do journalists always assume anyone who strives for a better society has a role model?” He glances down at his pinging phone and draws a breath, before continuing. “Can you really describe my dad as an activist? I support LGBTQ rights,” he says, with a fist pump. His father, Roger Wong, is a well-known anti-gay rights campaigner in Hong Kong.
I notice he has put down his spoon, with half a plate of fried rice untouched. I decide it would be a good idea to redirect our conversation by bonding over phone addictions. Wong, renowned for his laser focus and determination, replies to my emails and messages at all hours and has been described by his friends as “a robot.”
He scrolls through his Gmail, his inbox filled with unread emails, showing me how he categorises interview requests with country tags. His life is almost solely dedicated to activism. “My friends and I used to go to watch movies and play laser tag but now of course we don’t have time to play any more: we face real bullets every weekend.”
The protests — which have seen more than 3,300 people arrested — have been largely leaderless. “Do you ever question your relevance to the movement?” I venture, mid-spoonful of congealed fried rice.
“Never,” he replies with his mouth full. “We have a lot of facilitators in this movement and I’m one of them . . . it’s just like Wikipedia. You don’t know who the contributors are behind a Wikipedia page but you know there’s a lot of collaboration and crowdsourcing. Instead of just having a top-down command, we now have a bottom-up command hub which has allowed the movement to last far longer than Umbrella.
“With greater power comes greater responsibility, so the question is how, through my role, can I express the voices of the frontliners, of the street activism? For example, I defended the action of storming into the Legislative Council on July 1. I know I didn’t storm in myself . . . ” His phone pings twice. Finally he succumbs.
After tapping away for about 30 seconds, Wong launches back into our conversation, sounding genuinely sorry that he wasn’t there on the night when protesters destroyed symbols of the Chinese Communist party and briefly occupied the chamber.
“My job is to be the middleman to express, evaluate and reveal what is going on in the Hong Kong protests when the movement is about being faceless,” he says, adding that his Twitter storm of 29 tweets explaining the July 1 occupation reached at least four million people. I admit that I am overcome with exhaustion just scanning his Twitter account, which has more than 400,000 followers. “Well, that thread was actually written by Jeffrey Ngo from Demosisto,” he say, referring to the political activism group that he heads.
A network of Hong Kong activists studying abroad helps fuel his relentless public persona on social media and in the opinion pages of international newspapers. Within a week of his most recent arrest, he had published op-eds in The Economist, The New York Times, Quartz and the Apple Daily.
I wonder out loud if he ever feels overwhelmed at taking on the Chinese Communist party, a task daunting even for some of the world’s most formidable governments and companies. He peers at me over his wire-framed glasses. “It’s our responsibility; if we don’t do it, who will? At least we are not in Xinjiang or Tibet; we are in Hong Kong,” he says, referring to two regions on Chinese soil on the frontline of Beijing’s drive to develop a high-tech surveillance state. In Xinjiang, at least one million people are being held in internment camps. “Even though we’re directly under the rule of Beijing, we have a layer of protection because we’re recognised as a global city so [Beijing] is more hesitant to act.”
I hear the sound of the wok firing up in the kitchen and ask him the question on everyone’s minds in Hong Kong: what happens next? Like many people who are closely following the extraordinary situation in Hong Kong, he is hesitant to make firm predictions.
“Lots of think-tanks around the world say ‘Oh, we’re China experts. We’re born in western countries but we know how to read Chinese so we’re familiar with Chinese politics.’ They predicted the Communist party would collapse after the Tiananmen Square massacre and they’ve kept predicting this over the past three decades but hey, now it’s 2019 and we’re still under the rule of Beijing, ha ha,” he grins.
While we are prophesying, does Wong ever think he might become chief executive one day? “No local journalist in Hong Kong would really ask this question,” he admonishes. As our lunch has progressed, he has become bolder in dissecting my interview technique. The territory’s chief executive is currently selected by a group of 1,200, mostly Beijing loyalists, and he doubts the Chinese Communist party would ever allow him to run. A few weeks after we meet he announces his candidacy in the upcoming district council elections. He was eventually the only candidate disqualified from running — an order that, after our lunch, he tweeted had come from Beijing and was “clearly politically driven”.
We turn to the more ordinary stuff of 23-year-olds’ lives, as Wong slurps the remainder of his milk tea. “Before being jailed, the thing I was most worried about was that I wouldn’t be able to watch Avengers: Endgame,” he says.
“Luckily, it came out around early May so I watched it two weeks before I was locked up in prison.” He has already quoted Spider-Man twice during our lunch. I am unsurprised when Wong picks him as his favourite character.
“I think he’s more . . . ” He pauses, one of the few times in the interview. “Compared to having an unlimited superpower or unlimited power or unlimited talent just like Superman, I think Spider-Man is more human.” With that, our friendly neighbourhood activist dashes off to his next interview.
Sue-Lin Wong is the FT’s South China correspondent
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