Overseas, Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) has emerged as a prominent face of Hong Kong’s months-long protests for full democracy. At home, he is just another protester.
The 22-year-old activist, who rose to fame as a leader of pro-democracy protests five years ago, was yesterday to speak to a US congressional committee, following visits to Taiwan and Germany to drum up support for the movement.
While not diminishing the importance of that role, other protesters have said that Wong does not speak for what is purposefully a leaderless movement.
Illustration: Mountain People
He has received media coverage, because he is well-known and the movement is largely faceless, as many protesters speak only anonymously and wear masks to try to avoid arrest.
“Not that nobody cares about what he says, but it’s just that Joshua Wong alone cannot represent the whole of Hong Kong,” 17-year-old student Sean Au said. “He is just a participant, no longer a leader.”
Wong’s activities have nonetheless made him a target of the Chinese government, which has used him to accuse foreign powers of colluding with anti-China separatists to foment unrest.
His activism started at age 13 when he joined protests against a proposed high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and China. The link opened last year after many delays.
The bespectacled teen set up a student activist group, Scholarism, months later and rallied more than 100,000 people to protest a plan to implement mandatory patriotic education in schools.
The Hong Kong government eventually dropped the plan.
It was the 2014 “Umbrella movement” that propelled Wong into the global spotlight. Protesters occupied major thoroughfares in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory for 79 days in an ultimately unsuccessful push for direct elections for the territory’s leaders.
Wong in 2016 cofounded a political party, Demosisto, but its members were disqualified from serving and later even running for office, because they advocated self-determination.
He remains secretary-general of the organization, which now describes itself on Twitter as a movement-oriented youth activist group.
Wong, who has been arrested and jailed repeatedly, was released in June, days after more than 1 million people took to the streets to protest an extradition bill that is widely regarded as an example of China chipping away at the territory’s autonomy.
He was last month rearrested along with several others and charged with organizing an illegal rally outside a police station in June.
While Wong has inspired many, neither he nor other well-known individuals or groups have a central role in this summer’s mass movement, said Bonnie Leung (梁穎敏) of the Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized several massive marches this summer.
Leung acknowledged that Wong’s reputation as the poster child of the 2014 protest gives him stature as a protest representative on the global stage, along with others such as Hong Kong pop star Denise Ho (何韻詩).
“Globally, we need actions that will make [the Hong Kong and Beijing governments] think twice before they act,” Leung said. “Joshua Wong is a well-known face across the world and he can help in this.”
Wong and Ho are among five people yesterday scheduled to speak at a hearing of the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China titled “Hong Kong’s Summer of Discontent and US Policy Responses.”
They hope to rally support for the US’ Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill proposing economic sanctions and penalties on Chinese and Hong Kong officials found to have suppressed democracy in the territory.
Mousse Chan, a 45-year-old teacher, said that she supports Wong in his global tour, although she echoed the view that he is not their leader.
“We believe that every Hong Kong citizen has a responsibility to raise awareness about our cause and he is just one of them,” she said.
Wong has accused the Hong Kong government of trying to frame prominent activists such as himself as a warning to other protesters, but he said that it was doomed to fail, as the current unrest has no centralized figureheads.
Born in 1996 to a middle-class Christian family, Wong has said that his passion was ignited after his father started taking him to poorer areas when he was a young child.
He has written a book called I Am Not a Hero and featured in a Netflix documentary entitled Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower.
Ahead of his trip to Germany earlier this month, he made headlines in Berlin after suggesting that two panda cubs — born to pandas rented from China at the Berlin Zoological Garden — be named “Democracy” and “Freedom” to send a clear signal to China.
He later compared Hong Kong with East Germany during the pro-democracy protests that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Beijing has rebuked German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas for meeting Wong, saying that he disrespected China’s sovereignty.
Wong on Sunday said on Twitter that human rights clauses should be included in ongoing trade negotiations between the US and China.
“I see no reason for us to give up and it’s time for the world to stand with Hong Kong,” he said.
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