Hong Kong pro-democracy activist says protests part of a 'long-term battle'

A prominent leader of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement says he hopes the protests over a controversial extradition bill that have filled the streets of the city in recent days will eventually lead to greater freedoms.

Protesters have flooded city streets in bid to stop extradition bill

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaks to protesters near the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on Monday after he was released from prison. He says the fight for change in Hong Kong will continue. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

A prominent leader of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement says he hopes that the massive wave of protests over a controversial extradition bill will eventually lead to greater freedoms for the former British colony.

Millions of Hong Kong residents have taken part in sprawling public protests over a government bill that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China to face trial. The fear is that it will allow Beijing to scoop up not just suspected criminals but anyone who questions Chinese authority.

"In the short-run, we urge that the evil law and the evil leader should withdraw and step down," said 22-year-old Joshua Wong, a key figure in Hong Kong's 2014 Umbrella Movement. 

"In the long-run, we ask for free elections."

Wong spoke to CBC News on Tuesday, just a day after he was released from prison after serving part of a two-month sentence, his second stint in custody over his role in the 2014 protests.

Wong has been a fixture in the pro-democracy movement since he was a teenager and a hardline critic of both the Hong Kong government and China's Communist leadership.

'We are back'

The Umbrella Movement of 2014 arose in response to restrictions Beijing imposed on voting for Hong Kong's legislature. These latest protests have been focused on the government's extradition bill and on Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who led the charge for its implementation.

The current wave of demonstrations is the latest manifestation of Hong Kong's desire to free itself from the ever-increasing influence of Beijing, Wong said.

"Just like five years ago in the Umbrella Movement, we asked for free elections," he said. They didn't achieve their goal but promised to be back. "Five years later, we are back with even stronger determination."

Wong said that determination has only been strengthened by the Hong Kong government's stern response to the protest movement. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators last week.

And while Lam has apologized for the unrest the government's extradition bill has caused and said the legislation is now unlikely to pass, she has refused protesters' demands that the legislation be withdrawn and that she resign her post.

"Beijing and the Hong Kong government have turned a whole generation of ordinary citizens into a generation of dissidents," Wong said.

Many protesters see Lam as a puppet of the Chinese regime. As she delivered her second public apology on Tuesday for the unrest that's been caused by the government, demonstrators gathered outside, listening to Lam's remarks on loudspeakers and jeering her words.

Protesters occupy a street demanding Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam step down. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

"She just repeats her same speech every time," said Kevin Ma, who was among the crowd. "Just like a machine. She is under the control of Beijing."

Concerns about the government's now suspended bill do reveal a deeper unease among large parts of Hong Kong's population about the encroaching influence of Beijing, a trend that will likely accelerate as the territory moves toward full integration with the mainland in 2047.

Those concerns could be readily heard this week at a memorial that has sprung up outside a Hong Kong shopping mall, where a protester fell to his death during a demonstration while unfurling a banner last week.

Maggie Lai, who placed white flowers on a growing pile of bouquets, cards and folded paper cranes left as a tribute to the protester who died, said that as she looks toward the future she is worried not for herself but her children.

Flowers and tributes have poured in for a protester who fell to his death while hanging banners outside a shopping mall. (Dale De La Rey/AFP/Getty Images)

"What is Hong Kong going to be like? What kind of rules? If you say something, will we still have the freedom?"

Lai said she has not taken part in the recent protests. She's had to take care of her family and she's also worried about upsetting her parents. They are more conservative, she said, and don't like the clamour and confusion the demonstrations have caused.

That sort of opinion can be heard in Hong Kong. Support for the protest movement is not unanimous. But the sheer number of people who have taken to the streets can only be seen as a sign that many people are fearful about what the future holds.

Joshua Wong said he remains hopeful, though his goals — free elections in Hong Kong and the end to one-party rule in China — seem almost impossibly high.

"It's a long-term battle," he said.

"But never would we imagine two million people would join a rally. We did it. We achieved it. And that's the miracle. And that's why we will continue our fight."