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Moment that mattered: Joshua Wong on the success of pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong’s 2019 elections

Joshua Wong queues to cast his vote in Hong Kong’s South Horizons district on 24th November. Photo: Vivek Prakash / AFP via Getty Images

When Hong Kong went to the polls on 24th November 2019, the territory’s pro-Beijing political establishment suffered a major blow. Over 80 percent of seats – and 17 of the 18 district councils – went to candidates aligned with the pro-democracy movement, which had only won a quarter of seats in the previous elections four years earlier. Many of the newly elected officials were activists who had participated in the mass protests that had convulsed the semi-autonomous territory since June 2019, although Hong Kong’s most renowned activist wasn’t among them.

“The elections were a landslide victory,” says Joshua Wong, the only person barred from standing in them, a ban he blames on “political censorship” and the “manipulation of Beijing”. At the time of the elections Wong was the secretary-general of Demosistō, a pro-democracy organisation he co-founded that — before it disbanded in June 2020 in the wake of Hong Kong’s draconian new national security law — was calling for “self-determination” for Hong Kong. It’s a position the authorities viewed as incompatible with the territory’s Basic Law – a constitutional document setting out the principles of semi-autonomy from China – and which therefore invalidated his candidacy. In Wong’s view, Demosistō was pressing for more democracy and not independence.

“The election results explained the stance of the silent majority,” Wong says, referring to the dismantling of one of the pro-Beijing establishment’s main arguments over the months of unrest, that a “silent majority” of Hong Kongers quietly opposed the protesters, or thought they had gone too far. He believes that the decision to ban him backfired, and only encouraged more Hong Kongers to vote.

We need to prepare a mindset so we can overcome these threats”

In reality, Hong Kong’s new pro-democracy district councillors have little actual power; they largely deal with local matters such as rubbish collection and public transport. The territory’s chief executive, currently the beleaguered Carrie Lam, is chosen by pro-Beijing loyalists, while only half the seats for Hong Kong’s de facto parliament, the legislative council, are determined through direct vote. However, the November elections had been widely cast as a referendum on the protest movement, and the unexpectedly emphatic results were a humiliating rebuke of Lam and her backers in Beijing. Wong says the victory also gave the pro-democracy camp an opportunity to show that they stand for more than just opposition to Beijing, and that they can now demonstrate how politics can take place in a more open and transparent way.

Wong’s disqualification initially felt like a blow to the pro-democracy movement. He has been an inspirational figure and a veteran of its struggle, despite only being 23. He was 14 when he founded student activist group Scholarism, which organised mass protests against government plans to introduce pro-Chinese “patriotic education” lessons in schools. In 2014 he became the face of the Umbrella Movement, a 79-day occupation of part of the city’s financial district provoked by new laws that gave Beijing tighter control over Hong Kong’s elections. Since then, Wong has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, appeared on the cover of Time magazine and been the subject of a Netflix documentary (Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower). He has also been imprisoned twice.

Wong on the cover of Time, published 20th October 2014

A selection of letters Wong wrote during his first spell behind bars, a 69-day stint in 2017, make up the middle section of his first English-language book, Unfree Speech. The letters demonstrate the hardening of his resolve to fight what he sees as Chinese president Xi Jinping’s campaign to erode the “One Country, Two Systems” principle agreed at the time of the 1997 handover. “[Prison] made me strong in determination for such an uphill battle,” he tells us. “I think my experience [in prison] has led me to realise how we need to prepare a mindset [so we can] overcome these threats.”

Wong does not seem like a person who is easily discouraged or derailed. Friends describe him as a “robot”, who is single-minded and relentless in his mission. Such laser focus is evident during our interview – his answers are unfailingly to-the-point. He may not be the most loquacious interviewee, but he is determined to keep talking if it means Hong Kong stays in the headlines. He knows his global profile comes with unique responsibilities: as the poster boy of 2014 he can reach places most of his fellow demonstrators can’t.

I hope to let the voice of Hong Kongers be heard at the global level”

Wong defines his current role as that of an “international facilitator” who “hopes to let the voice of Hong Kongers be heard at the global level”. His work paid dividends in September 2019 when Wong and fellow activist Denise Ho, a Hong Kong pop star who has been blacklisted in China for her activism, testified before Congress in Washington DC. Their presence helped the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, aimed at upholding the territory’s semi-autonomy, win rare bipartisan support across the House of Representatives, and on 27th November Donald Trump signed the bill.

The police force in Hong Kong has been accused of brutality by protesters, who themselves have been accused of using excessive violence. In Unfree Speech, Wong writes of how a “more militant breed of protester emerged” in Hong Kong in 2019, some of whom hurled bricks and Molotov cocktails at police. In his book he stops short of condemning the violent tactics, which he tries to explain, if not justify, by pointing to a piece of anti-government graffiti: “It was YOU who told us that peaceful protest doesn’t work”. Pressed on whether throwing petrol bombs at police is justified, he only says that “police brutality and a lack of police accountability” triggered the activists’ escalation. A fear among activists that their more aggressive tactics would be bad PR for the movement has been allayed by the resounding election victory, he says.

No one expected that the Berlin Wall would fall, but it happened”

In early 2020 the street protests ebbed away, in part because the territory is on edge over the coronavirus outbreak, which by mid-February had killed two people. Many remember how the SARS outbreak killed almost 300 people in Hong Kong and caused a sharp economic downtown in the early 2000s. Beijing’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis has given Wong and his fellow activists further cause to oppose Chinese rule. On Twitter, where he has over half a million followers, Wong has called for the porous border with China to be sealed until the health crisis is over.

It remains to be seen whether the streets of Hong Kong will once again fill with protesters, as they did back in July 2019, when an estimated 1.7 million people – a quarter of the territory’s population – took part in demonstrations. Wong insists that protests will continue until the remaining demands, which include full universal suffrage and an inquiry into police brutality, have been met. The government met one demand by withdrawing its controversial extradition bill, which would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to the mainland, and which sparked the protests in the first place.

But on 30th June 2020, prospects of further concessions seemed to recede when Beijing’s controversial Hong Kong national security law came into force. The new legislation gave the Chinese government an unprecedented level of direct control over law enforcement in the territory, and meant that its citizens now faced an array of new security measures including heightened surveillance, closed-door trials and a number of crimes, such as damaging public transport, being reclassified as terrorism. The legislation’s implications for human rights have been widely condemned internationally, and have led to growing tension between Beijing and the UK over an extension of British citizenship to some 3 million Hong Kong residents.

Wong was a baby when the UK transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to China in 1997. In 2047, when the agreement to give the territory a high degree of autonomy expires, he will be 50. What will things look like then? “Hong Kong will be a place with freedom and democracy and our future will be determined by ourselves instead of dominated by Beijing,” he replies in an instant. But surely this is over-optimistic. How can tiny Hong Kong compete against the mighty Chinese Communist Party? “No one expected that the Berlin Wall would fall, but it happened,” he replies. What about being on Chairman Xi’s list of enemies. Doesn’t that scare him? “Compared to the price paid by others in China, or in the last century in Taiwan or South Korea, the price we are paying in Hong Kong right now is only a small piece of cake,” he says.


On 20th July 2020, Wong announced his intention to stand in September’s elections for Hong Kong’s legislative council. By the end of the month, though, the authorities had blocked Wong, along with several other pro-democracy candidates, from taking part, claiming their nominations were ‘invalid’. On 31st July Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, and due to the Covid-19 crisis, the elections would be postponed by a year, with the new date set for 5th September 2021.

Unfree Speech by Joshua Wong is published by Penguin.


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