An Rong Xu
Joshua Wong can feel his time running short. The 24-year-old student and icon of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is subject to curfew restrictions in his home city, and when we speak earlier this year he says he can’t reveal his exact location to me, for fear of surveillance by China’s security state.
Since the imposition by Beijing of Hong Kong’s draconian new security law in June 2020, which gives its government sweeping powers to limit everything from suspect subversion to political protest, Wong says he often endures days “trailed by unknown cars and vehicles, and being stopped and hounded by pro-Beijing gangs.”
Both Wong’s own future, and the status of the city whose freedoms he has spent more than a decade trying to protect, look precarious. He was arrested in September 2020 on a number of charges including attending an illegal demonstration, and now risks a return to prison, having previously been jailed in 2019. “Time is running out for Hong Kong and time is also running out for my safety,” he says. “It is hard for me to know when the police will storm into my home and arrest me at six in the morning.” On December 2, Wong and two other democracy activists, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, were jailed for 13.5 months, ten months and seven months respectively. They were found guilty of unlawful assembly.
Wong first won international recognition as the youthful, bespectacled face of 2014’s Umbrella Movement, in which Hong Kong city centre was brought to a standstill by thousands of activists demanding more democratic and transparent elections – and wielding yellow umbrellas to guard against police tear gas and pepper spray.
In the years since, he has been a leader in the city’s pro-democracy movement as well as one of its chief advocates abroad, thanks to visits such as his September 2019 trips to Germany and the United States to rally support against China’s actions in Hong Kong, but also through his work with a loose new grouping of pro-democracy protest movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, known as the Milk Tea Alliance. (The name refers to the popularity of sweet, milky tea-based drinks in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, but not in China.)
Progress is far from easy. Many of Wong’s friends have left Hong Kong for fear of arrest, including Nathan Law, another prominent activist who fled to London. Others are in prison in China, including a dozen Hong-Kongers captured on boats attempting to reach Taiwan in September. “Beijing has closed off many of our platforms, but we will put pressure on Beijing in every battlefield,” Wong says. “Whether we have an online assembly, or we use Facebook Live, or we have a protest outside a government building, the fight goes on.”
Wong often speaks in brisk, rapid-fire slogans, as if addressing a public rally – something he can now perform less frequently than he would like. Yet if Beijing’s laws have curbed some of his pro-democracy activities, they have only hardened his views about the threat posed by China’s President Xi Jinping, not merely in Hong Kong but across Asia. China’s behaviour in Hong Kong is part of a broader warning, he suggests, including its decision to imprison millions of its ethnic Uigher minority in re-education camps. “What they have done in Xinjiang and elsewhere is going to come to other places,” Wong suggests. “Under the hard-line rule of ‘Emperor Xi’, nothing is impossible.”
Even so, Wong is hopeful that the combination of various pro-democracy movements around Asia might help to pressure China to change course. Under the banner of #milkteaalliance, he and other anti-Chinese activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan have recently joined virtual forces with protestors in Thailand, who have taken to the streets of Bangkok to demand reforms to the country’s monarchy and military.
Much of this co-operation takes place online, swapping protest tactics on Telegram or countering pro-Chinese trolls on Twitter. But in October 2020, Wong also led a small public protest outside the Thai embassy in Hong Kong, adopting the same three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games film franchise that has been widely used during anti-government protests in Bangkok. “No matter if we are in Hong Kong, Taiwan or Thailand, all of us appreciate the threat of China,” he says. “I hope this new alliance, this new hashtag, can push forward examples of grassroots diplomacy. We want to be able to express our desire for more freedom.”
As for his own future, speaking earlier this year, Wong says he has no plans to leave his home city, even as he admits that any vestige of independence in Hong Kong’s government has been lost. “I have no hope towards the regime, but I have hope that we can continue to win over the people of Hong Kong,” he says. “We have to stay and continue the fight. We will not kowtow to China.”
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