Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong: ‘Even if you are still in university you can create change in society’
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Student Joshua Wong is fighting for democracy in Hong Kong, and the self-determination of his city from mainland China. It's a struggle that's seen him jailed. Here he tells us why.
Can you describe your family background?
I am a 21-year-old university student. I was born in 1996, which means a year before the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong. I would say that my parents come from a middle class family; my dad works in the I.T. industry, and my mum works in family counselling.
How would you describe the school system in Hong Kong and your experience within it?
In Asian societies—especially in Hong Kong—the whole education system is exam oriented. It just trains students to be machines to prepare for examination instead of gaining knowledge, promoting reflection, or building greater understanding in order to prepare and equip themselves to enter society. It seems only to train students to get the best result in the examination: you will learn more exam skills or tactics, instead of learning true knowledge. Apart from the exam oriented trend, I would say the education system in Hong Kong is mainly dominated by Beijing interference. This means that Beijing always hopes to introduce communist propaganda, to force students to hold loyalty not only to their country, but also the communist regime.
This ties into your first entry in politics and student activism, was with the Scholarism movement. Can you describe the Scholarism movement?
Six years ago, when I was a high school student, Beijing decided to introduce a new school curriculum in Hong Kong. We identified and described this as brainwashing through the national education school curriculum, because it forced students to show their loyalty to the communist regime. I realised that, instead of just allowing those politicians that left school two, three, or even four decades ago to act upon this, why don’t we organise a campaign by ourselves; by students?
So in 2011 I founded the student activist group Scholarism, and later on we organized campaigns on the street and other demonstrations. Finally it resulted in 100,000 people joining the assembly and occupying the street outside the government headquarters for a week, and successfully forcing Beijing and the Hong Kong government to withdraw their school curriculum.
What would you say is the current state of student activism within the school system in Hong Kong?
Now in Hong Kong student activism, and other activist groups, are under threat. Students involved in the Umbrella Movement have been locked up in prison. Also the within the legislature—the MPs of Hong Kong—the representative of the voice of students, Nathan Law, is the first legislator in Hong Kong that has run for office, and been successfully elected whilst being a university student. He has been kicked out of office because of Beijing suppression. So I would say that no matter our hopes to run for office and enter the institutions of government, we will be kicked out of office and disqualified by the government; or if you hope to organise a campaign on the streets, you will be locked up in prison. Under the power of the government, and under the hard-line of President Xi, things become more challenging.
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You mentioned the Umbrella Movement - could you summarize the goals of the movement and, in your opinion, its results?
What we realised is (that) Beijing originally promised the Hong Kong people one-person one-vote, to have free elections, which means the leader of Hong Kong should be democratically elected and directly elected by the people of this city, which we recognised as “one country two systems”.
However, what we face in recent years is the “one country two systems” policy turns out to be “one country one-and-a-half systems”. We have dissatisfaction because Beijing originally promised us democracy, but since the handover year—from 1997 to 2014, almost 20 years—Beijing still ignored its promise. So we asked and fought for free elections and we organised a campaign on the street, and we started the Umbrella Movement, which occupied the streets of Hong Kong for 79 days with more than 200,000 people. We blocked roads, participated in civil disobedience and massive protests to show that the people of Hong Kong need to fight for our dignity.
What would you say is the most important lesson you have learnt from the Umbrella Movement?
I would say the first most iconic and significant movement under China’s territories is of course the Tiananmen Square student movement in 1989. The second would be the Umbrella Movement. Unfortunately after 79 days we still cannot achieve free elections to let the Hong Kong people elect our government, but it still allowed us to learn a lesson, to realize the uniqueness of Hong Kong. I hope that Hong Kong is not only famous through movies, food, or Chinese culture: Hong Kong is also famous for its voice of protest. Through our experience we hope to let the world know it’s time for us to realise the threat of China.
How would you describe the current relationship between Hong Kong and China?
Now, as people already recognise, “one country two systems” has turned into “one country one-and-a-half systems”, and the difference and uniqueness of Hong Kong is being continually and rapidly eroded by Beijing. Through interference in the education system students are being forced into loyalty towards Beijing, or in Hong Kong they just force the youngsters to speak Putonghua (Mandarin) instead of Cantonese; and even now ‘red’ capital dominates the financial market. I would say that in previous days we recognised Hong Kong as a world financial centre, or a global city, but it seems now that it is turning from a global city into a Chinese run city. That is the problem. The relationship between the two has weakened because when Beijing ignores its promise the communist regime in China loses most of its credibility in the hearts of the Hong Kong people.
Can you describe the political party Demosisto and its current political goals?
After the end of the Umbrella Movement, even though we did not achieve free elections, we still realised that it is necessary for us to fight for democracy in the long-term. So the Umbrella Movement student leaders successfully founded a political party called Demosisto to fight for self-determination. Self-determination does not mean we seek independence— that is not the goal we uphold — instead self-determination means that the future political status of Hong Kong should be determined by the Hong Kong people: that is what we are asking for. In the 2016 legislative council elections Nathan Law, the chairperson of this political party, was successfully elected to be the youngest law-maker in Hong Kong history, but he was kicked out of office last summer.
You mentioned previously the charges being brought against many of your colleagues and members of the Umbrella Movement. Can you describe the current court cases that you are fighting in Hong Kong?
I served a jail sentence for nearly 100 days and I still have one court case pending for appeal. I left prison just two months ago on bail. This means that in May or June I need to face trial again and the verdict may not be favourable, which means I will go back to prison to serve another jail sentence. At the same time there are more than ten activists locked up in prison currently, and my political party Demosisto still has a few more court cases to face. So I would say that being arrested by police, being held inside police station, and going to court to support our friends in their cases has become our routine daily life.
You wrote very movingly in articles published in the Guardian about your time in prison. What was that experience like for you, and what did you learn from your time in prison?
To generally describe my experience I would say that prison is the place that urges you to obey and to completely submit to orders. It does not allow you to have any critical thinking. Also when I was locked up in the juvenile prison, one of my experiences was always hearing other prisoners being physically assaulted by the prison staff.
And do you think these sentences brought against you, and your colleagues, are politically motivated?
I remember, according to a Reuters report from last year, that the Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen ignored the civil servants within the his department (Department of Justice) who disagreed on the appeal of the court case, but because of political considerations he still decided to raise the appeal to lock us activists in prison. So I think when Reuters already has reported on it, and members of the Justice Department have mentioned it, I do think it’s clear that the sentences are politically motivated with the goal of political suppression driving them.
What would you say in your various interactions with both the media and institutions are the most common criticisms made against you? And are any of them valid in your opinion?
I would say that of course when we organise campaigns on the street and fight for democracy by reacting to the threat of Beijing we will always face the situation of being criticised by pro-Beijing media. For instance I have been criticised as receiving U.S. marine training, working as a CIA agent, and these kinds of things from pro-Beijing media. I would say that in Hong Kong in every election when the pro-democracy camp is set against the pro-Beijing camp we always get the majority of people’s support. So I would say that people stand on our side but the pro-Beijing media just portrays us using this kind of criticism.
And when you talk to media outlets what message do you try and get across about the democracy movement and about Hong Kong to the rest of the world? What is your core message?
My message to the world might be to say that even though that Hong Kong is a small city and people will just focus on the tall towers of such a financial city, the people under the tall towers that fight for democracy deserve more support from people around the world, and media around the world. And I hope when we recognize President Xi has now already become the Emperor Xi through the constitutional reform, and this has allowed human rights progress to be pushed backwards in recent months. I hope that the experience of how the Hong Kong people respond or react to China can be a reference for people around the world, especially for the global civil society to uphold freedom and democracy.
Do you think the UK has a part in creating the current situation in Hong Kong? Both through the history leading up to now, and also its current actions.
Yes, I would say from two aspects. This first aspect is the UK and China issued or published the Sino-British Joint Declaration around three decades ago. This agreement claimed it would uphold the “one country two systems” policy and monitor the situation in Hong Kong. However, the Six-Monthly Report on Hong Kong from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) states that the “one country two systems” policy is operating smoothly. I am really curious, how come when young people are being locked up in prison and legislatures have been disqualified, how can the UK FCO claim that it operates smoothly, and nothing needs to change? So I would say that even though they have already signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration that is recognised as an international treaty, because Xi Jing Ping has had a sharp rise in power on the global level, I would say that I have low expectations on the UK government.
However, I have more hope in the global civil society, especially the new generation of UK students. We are experiencing the rise of a global popular movement, no matter the result of the Brexit referendum, the rise of the far-right in European countries, or Donald Trump being elected; it may seem that the world is in chaos, or that we are under a difficult situation, but the experience of Hong Kong should encourage people not to forget freedom and democracy, and the universal values that we uphold.
Last year I visited the UK to deliver speeches at Oxford University, LSE, UCL, and Kings College, and I hope that in the next few months when my passport is given back to me I can visit London and the other cities in the UK. Currently I am on bail pending appeal and the court is holding my passport so I cannot leave Hong Kong now.
What are the plans for Demosisto and the Democracy Movement moving forward?
For the future of the Democracy Movement in Hong Kong we will put our main effort into four aspects. The first is international lobbying. Because Hong Kong is a global city, looking to uphold the political status of Hong Kong is not only a domestic issue. We need to get more allies around the world, to seek and enhance global solidarity. So the way to do that is to have more international lobbying and interaction by delivering speeches around different universities, because perhaps when I deliver a speech in Oxford, Cambridge, or LSE maybe one of the audience members might be the future leader of the UK. At the same time we can connect with MPs, and I also plan to visit the United Nations Human Rights Council to lobby for and review the human rights condition of Hong Kong. So International Lobbying is the first aspect.
The second thing is to have a dedicated intellectual work to decode the history of Hong Kong. It seems to be complicated, but in fact around last year we have formed a new project with scholars, professors, and intellectuals, around Hong Kong and overseas Hong Kongers. Its name is Decoding Hong Kong’s History. Every week we will visit the National Archives in Kew Gardens to read through the history of Hong Kong because in fact the transfer of sovereignty and the “one country two systems” model was not decided by the people of Hong Kong in the last century. It was all decided by Beijing and the UK government in closed door negotiations. So since the future of Hong Kong was in the hands of London and Beijing in the last century the archival record will show any under-the-table negotiations or deals which we can use in the future fight for democracy in Hong Kong. Our movement can be found on our Facebook page and our website. This is a project that is currently underway and is endorsed by well-known scholars like Larry Diamond and Jerome Cohen.
Apart from the archival research and the international lobbying of course we will still continue the community movement in Hong Kong with civil society campaigns, especially now when there is a national anthem law implementation discussion. The national anthem law from our perspective is just eroding critical thinking and the independence of mind. In the world national education seems to be common, but when it is applied to the context of Hong Kong it becomes a method of brainwashing and eroding citizens’ independence of mind. The national anthem law is a criminal law which if violated provides for a jail sentence for around three years. I describe it as a tool to constrain freedom of thought because it is impractical and it states that if you do not sing the national anthem you will face the prescribed charges. It is my understanding that even Jeremy Corbyn in London still has some dissatisfaction or hesitation over the national anthem; so if the UK had the equivalent of the Hong Kong national anthem law Jeremy Corbyn would be locked up in prison also.
One of the results of you being put in prison is that you will be temporarily barred from office in Hong Kong. Do you plan to run for office someday?
I hope to run for office but using the example of my Demosisto party members - no matter if they were already successfully elected like Nathan Law, or hoping to run as a candidate like Agnes Chow, both of them have already been barred from running for office. There is a currently a red line and political censorship, but I do not know how the red line will be implemented in the future. Perhaps anyone who is urging to end the one-party dictatorship, and does not agree with the Beijing National People’s Congress constitutional reform, may also not be able to run for office in the future.
What are your thoughts on being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by a United States Congressional Group?
I would say that compared to the recently deceased dissident Liu Xiaobo, who received the Nobel Peace Prize, the price we pay in Hong Kong are small by comparison. We are still a great distance from the level of someone like Liu Xiaobo, but I hope to stay humble and also let the world know that even though the Umbrella Movement ended our battle is still continuing.
What would you say to students here in the UK, many of whom are participating in various forms of activism?
The UK government shows that its business interest overrides its human rights principles, especially where it has made a trade deal with China. It seems that Hong Kong is considered a distant city from the UK, but I would say that from the experience of how university students in Hong Kong lead civil disobedience actions with more than 200,000 people occupying the street I hope our actions can encourage students. First, encourage them to recognise the fact that China is not just an issue for Hong Kong, but an issue for the world.
Secondly I hope to encourage students in the UK to not wait until you graduate from university, even if you are still in university you can still create change in society, and to organise campaigns to let people know that when traditional politicians lose their dignity, or lose their beliefs and values, it is time for us to stand up and show that when the upper class blue-blood elite dominate our future through their own personal interest, it is time for us to determine their future.