So far, neither side has been willing to back down. Images of marches, rallies, hastily assembled barricades and increasingly tense clashes flood our news feeds every day. In June, a demonstration attended by almost two million people brought the city to a standstill. The following month, protesters stormed, occupied and tore apart the city’s legislative council offices.
A month ago, Hong Kong airport, one of the busiest in the world, was taken over and shut down by peaceful demonstrators who flooded the departure area and caused flights to be cancelled for two days. More recently, 1.7 million people braved thunderstorms to take to the streets.
A feature of this protest movement is that it is organic and technically leaderless. But of all the activists standing against Chinese authoritarianism, few, if any, are as recognised or as influential as Joshua Wong, general secretary for Demosisto, a campaigning organisation that wants to see Hong Kong secure autonomy from China’s Communist Party.
Skinny and bespectacled, the 22-year-old has spent most of his adolescence and his entire adulthood fighting Beijing. To understand and appreciate Wong’s life is to understand and appreciate Hong Kong’s ongoing struggle against the largest authoritarian regime on the planet.
At the age of 15, he founded and led a student youth movement that successfully thwarted Beijing’s attempts to force a nationalistic school curriculum on his city. In 2014, at the age of 17, he played a key role as an organiser and speaker in Hong Kong’s so-called Umbrella Movement, a series of mass protests against China’s (ultimately successful) attempt to vet all candidates standing for election as Hong Kong’s chief executive and thus ensure that everyone on the ballot paper was stoutly pro-Beijing.
It was his actions during these months that made him either famous or notorious, depending on whether you’re Xi Jinping or not. He has, at the time of this interview, been jailed three times, been the subject of a 2017 feature-length Netflix documentary (Joshua: Teenager Vs Superpower), appeared on the cover of Time magazine and, last year, was nominated for a Nobel peace prize by a bipartisan group of US politicians.
When we chatted a few weeks ago, Wong spoke of the threats he’d received but did not seem to fear imminent arrest. However, in these fluid times, no one could possibly know what would happen next.
Watch clips of him addressing crowds or speaking to media scrums and, aside from the occasional defiant yell, he speaks with a staccato flow. His friends and colleagues have sometimes described him as “robotic” or machine-like. Which, you slowly realise, is the point.
Wong’s great strength is that he is relentless, seeming to possess endless energy. In arranging our interview, he emails and messages so late at night you can’t work out if he’s just woken up or has yet to go to bed.
In Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower we see footage of him in 2012 walking the streets of Hong Kong with a megaphone and backpack of flyers, politely forcing people to listen and learn about China’s plans to force a super-nationalistic curriculum on the city’s children. It started off as a small, almost twee operation.
But he kept going, eventually helping to convene a rally of 100,000 people and forcing the Hong Kong chief executive to make the curriculum optional for schools rather than compulsory. It was his first big political victory and he was 15 years old.
He speaks in precise, unfaltering English and tries to explain just how far things have changed since he was a schoolboy activist. When he was a young teenager, campaigning against the Chinese “brainwashing” curriculum involved camping outside government offices and attending peaceful rallies.
But the dynamic has changed as China’s willingness to flex its muscles has increased. Under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong was supposed to retain a semi-autonomous status after its handover to China in 1997. Civil liberties and economic freedoms unthinkable on the Communist mainland were allowed to continue in the former colony.
These included a free press, the right to protest, continued capitalism, separate passports and the right of citizens to elect a chief executive to lead the Hong Kong government. This compromise became known as “one country, two systems”, and for 20 years or so it seemed to work.
Only, under the premiership of Xi Jinping, China has been methodically chipping away at these freedoms and, in the eyes of millions in Hong Kong, doing its best to ensure that before long there will only be one country, one system.
It is likely you have seen footage of the escalating violence. Baton charges. Rubber bullets fired into crowds from point-blank range. Riot police cornering protesters in an underground train station and launching canisters of tear gas at them.
When a photograph of a bloodied young woman who had been shot in the eye went viral, thousands of people returned to the streets the following day wearing bandages over one eye in a mass gesture of solidarity.
On the day of our interview, rumours that Chinese troops are massing on the border with Hong Kong are intensifying. Wong points out that, from the window of the office where he works all hours to promote freedom and democracy, we can see the high-rise HQ of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong.
No more than 100m away, it is a tall, grey concrete block with long, narrow, dark slit windows that give it the appearance of jail bars. Wong grins at the ironic proximity of the two buildings. There is something almost comically eerie and intimidating about it.
It is impossible to watch what is unfolding in Hong Kong without thinking of Tiananmen Square. But Wong says part of the reason the front ranks of the current protests are filled with Millennials and Gen Zers is that, compared with their parents, the potential brutality of the Chinese state is still abstract.
“But for Millennials, they know what Tiananmen means, but they never experienced it in their lifetimes, so they are more distant to it. Will it happen in Hong Kong? Will Beijing really send out the army to suppress our protests? Never say never.”
Wong says many of the teenagers on the front lines of protests are wearing protective hard hats now, and are making sure to write small, neat wills before they set off. Despite his profile and reputation, Wong stresses several times that he is not a hero and does not want to be portrayed as one.
“I am fully aware how the media would love to pick someone and, through a process of hero-isation, fulfil the framework of David v Goliath,” he says. “And rationally I agree that in the Hong Kong people’s fight for freedom, we are David and President Xi is Goliath. But it’s more important to recognise the sacrifice of the young students who confront the riot police.”
Wong was released from jail on June 17. He had been doing the final 30 days of a 120-day sentence, served in instalments on account of various appeals, which was handed down for his involvement in the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
He says jail was not pleasant — there were daily marching drills and he was regularly threatened by pro-Beijing staff and inmates — but compared with being blinded by riot police or having to serve several years in prison like some other protesters, it was “a small piece of cake”.
But the point is, it was a jail in Hong Kong. The reason these protests began in June was because of a new bill, proposed by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, that would allow the extradition of anyone convicted of a crime to mainland China.
“We have three crystal-clear demands,” says Wong, counting on fingers. “The first, terminate the extradition bill. The second, stop police brutality. Third, call for free elections. We need to be able to elect our own government.”
Wong grew up in a middle-class family who lived in a comfortable apartment block. His father, Roger, was an IT consultant and his mother, Grace, helped him as he struggled with dyslexia. Committed Christians, his family would engage in outreach work. He remembers visiting a family living in poverty, spending a year praying for them, and then visiting them again to find that nothing had changed.
It was instructive. If you want things to get better, he realised, you cannot just hope for the best; you have to do something about it. He says it’s difficult for him to talk too much about his family because he’d rather not draw attention to them. “I have experienced threats. Not just to me, but to my family,” he says.
Their address and mobile phone numbers have, on occasion, found their way into the pages of nationalistic Chinese newspapers. Last month, when US diplomat Julie Eadeh met him, she found that photographs of her children along with their names were duly leaked to a pro-Beijing paper, which in turn prompted an international spat as an outraged US State Department described it as the actions of a “thuggish regime”.
In 2015, Wong and a girlfriend were attacked on the street after going to the cinema. He will not now say whether he is in a relationship or not. I would guess not, though. He says he has a PlayStation 4 and a Nintendo Switch in his apartment but never has time to play them. He seems to quite like the Avengers superhero franchise but beyond that, his life is utterly centred on politics: by day, in the offices of Demosisto; by night, on the streets.
“Because of my split life and how my daily life is dominated by public affairs and lack of a personal life, if I were to choose one character from Marvel, I would choose Spider-Man,” he says. “There are some similarities.” Warming to the theme, he jokes — perhaps half-jokes — that Hong Kong’s struggle against China is an “infinity war”, a reference to the Avengers film of the same title. But again he stresses that he genuinely doesn’t want to be viewed as a hero.
Wong says he is used to the feeling of being under observation. Even when he has travelled abroad, he has felt the reach and influence of the Chinese government. Travelling to Taiwan in 2017 to attend a political seminar, he was set upon in the street.
A few months earlier he had been refused entry to Thailand and detained in Bangkok by a government that was, he believes, unwilling to upset China by allowing him to speak in the country. He feared he would face extradition to China, and it was only because of international pressure that he was eventually allowed to return to Hong Kong.
Downing Street has already announced it has suspended the export of weapons to the Hong Kong police and urged an independent inquiry into police brutality. But what kind of message does it send, officially inviting them to an arms fair?
“It’s totally insane,” says Wong. “I know from the perspective of UK politicians, they might have lots of considerations when it comes to trade or business. But I hope they can realise that if the UK doesn’t speak out for human rights in Hong Kong because of commercial interests, it loses its moral authority and legitimacy to speak out elsewhere. We need the support of the West, but I hope they understand that this isn’t just about political reform. It’s about a humanitarian crisis in Hong Kong.”
What do they realistically expect China to do? They’re not going to give up or back down. Not for ever, anyway. What does he think the road map to freedom or at least a return to the semi-autonomy of the past 20 years actually looks like?
Wong concedes that only Beijing can grant the political freedoms he and his fellow protesters want. But it is western countries and western business that makes Hong Kong so strong economically. And because it is in China’s interests to keep Hong Kong’s economy robust, it makes threats of sanctions and embargoes from the West particularly effective.
Essentially, Wong is banking on the hope that China will conclude it’s better to let Hong Kong continue to be Hong Kong, rather than seeing the city gradually wither and fade as the world stops doing business there in response to Chinese oppression. He thinks it was only the prospect of economic sanctions and “trade war” that caused the extradition bill to be suspended. “And even so, the bill has not been terminated yet.”
He says he has faith that he can win this battle, however unlikely anyone else seems to think it is. “I love the sense of belonging in Hong Kong. I love that it is such an international city. I love our food and our language. The people are energetic and passionate,” he says. “I just really love this city.”