'We will continue our fight ': Why Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong will keep speaking out for democracy
At the time, he was too young to buy a drink at the bar, let alone vote. But at the age of 17, Joshua Wong caught the world's attention when he became the face of pro-democracy protests, also known as the Umbrella Revolution, in Hong Kong in 2014.
Almost three years later, Wong continues to make his presence known. And, it's his continued activism for universal suffrage that has made him the focus of a new Netflix documentary, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower.
Wong, 20, has been blacklisted in China, detained and banned from Thailand and faced threats and attacks from those who oppose his views. He announced Thursday he would plead guilty over his involvement in the Umbrella Revolution.
He's also entered politics, and now serves as the secretary general of a Hong Kong political party Demosisto.
Wong spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the new film about his life and what's ahead for Hong Kong as it approaches the 20th anniversary of its handover to China.
Here is a part of their conversation:
Carol Off: I want to start with the news, which is that you plan to plead guilty for criminal contempt of court relating to your role in the Umbrella Revolution, the pro-democracy movement. Why have you decided to do that?
Joshua Wong: I already expected to pay the price. So, I just admitted to being the one who was involved in the Occupy action. Even if they need to send me to jail, I will not regret it at all.
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CO: There are 20 of you who are defendants in this. Half of them are not going to plead guilty. What are the consequences for you if you do make that plea?
JW: As the leader of the Umbrella Movement, I think I may be a bit different from the situations [other] participants will face. People have higher expectations of me and I think I need to rely on my promise three years ago and admit and bear the responsibility.
CO: This documentary that is now out, called Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, begins when you were 14 years old and you were already an activist at that time. What motivated you to become so politically involved?
JW: I started my journey since 2011. During that year, I could not imagine that it would result in the anti-national education movement, Umbrella Movement and even becoming a leader of the political party Demosisto.
I was involved in social movements six years ago and started the student activist group Scholarism because young generations would love to fight for freedom and democracy, especially under the implementation of the brainwashing national education school curriculum. We urged the government to withdraw it and give people critical thinking and freedom of mind.
CO: While you were doing this as a teenager, what did your parents think of your activism?
JW: My parents are not the ones who are strongly interested in politics. But, at least, they are the ones who give me enough room and space to have a certain degree of flexibility to do what I want.
CO: Even if it's led now to you facing possible time in prison?
JW: As someone who was born in Hong Kong and has no plans to move from Hong Kong to another country, if we keep silent and do nothing, what I worry about is that one or two decades later, Hong Kong would just turn from one country, two systems to one country, one system.
CO: When you refer to one country, two systems, this was the promise that when Hong Kong reverted to China [from Britain in 1997], Hong Kong would keep a separate system from Communist China. You began this revolution in 2014 because you felt this promise had been broken. When you got involved in that, did you know you were beginning something that was going to be as large as the Umbrella Revolution turned out to be?
JW: Two days before the Umbrella Movement, there were only two or three thousand Hong Kongers who came to the street and joined the assembly. During that evening, none of us could imagine that two days later, it would be 2,000 people to 200,000 people. It changed and created a miracle and resulted in the Umbrella Movement. That's why I always describe social movements as turning something impossible into the possible.
CO: It was something that made you an international figure, a celebrity. You were described as a hero. Some in the film described you as Joan of Arc, "a youngster who can see the world clearly and comes into a complicated adult conflict." How do you feel about that characterization?
JW: What I hope is to keep the international community's eyes on Hong Kong and also inspire downhearted young generations. After Brexit, [U.S. President Donald ] Trump getting elected and populist movements, it seems that democracy in the world has moved backwards instead of forwards. But, I just have to throw my experience in the previous six years to inspire more people.
CO: I know there were times when it's been very frustrating, painful and emotional for you. What kind of a toll has it taken on you to be in this role so young?
JW: It's hard for me to have a private life and it's really hard for us to take a rest. Sometimes, we may feel exhausted. But when we look back at what we have done in the previous few years, we recognize how this is valuable. We really created a new momentum in Hong Kong. What we just ask for is one man, one vote to elect the leader of our city.
CO: Do you feel at times that they're trying to break your spirit?
JW: Compared to human rights activists or lawyers that live in mainland China, they directly face the threat of the Communist regime that totally violates on human rights and the rule of law. So, I think the price faced by Hong Kongers is really small and less than people expect.
What we hope to let people know is that Hong Kong is the only place under the rule of China that has a certain degree of free flow of information and autonomy. We will continue our fight and let the Communist regime realize that the authoritarianism can't last for a long time because democracy should be the trend of our world.
CO: Do you think you could launch another Occupy movement?
JW: We have no plans to organize another Occupy action again. But July 1 is the 20th anniversary of the Handover of Hong Kong. We believe that there will be more than 100,000 people coming to the streets again to prove that this is not the time for celebration during the visit of [Chinese] President Xi Jinping, and is the time to ask for democracy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can hear more of Joshua Wong's conversation with Carol Off above.