Joshua Wong is a Hong Kong activist and Secretary General of the pro-democracy political party Demosisto. He founded the Hong Kong student-activist group Scholarism, which opposed the imposition of Chinese national education in Hong Kong schools. Joshua gained international renown for his involvement in the 2013 Umbrella Movement, calling for universal suffrage and free elections for Hong Kong’s executive position. He was nominated for Time’s Person of the Year in 2014.
Joshua spoke with Julian F. Watrous of Stanford Politics to discuss his past activism, the current state of the Hong Kong democracy movement, the future prospect of democracy in China and Hong Kong.
Julian F. Watrous: You’ve spoken about how there’s a lot of pressure in Hong Kong for students to stay out of politics and get good grades. How did you first get involved in politics? What inspired you? What were you seeking to accomplish at first?
Joshua Wong: I first got involved in politics during high school and it was all because the government wanted to introduce the brainwashing patriotic school education, so during that year instead of following the traditional mindset of the old generation, which was to enter the best universities, to become a professional, to have upward mobility, to enter the middle class, to become part of the elite, to buy a flat in the future. I think it’s necessary to contribute to society and to fight for the good that we believe in.
JFW: Can you explain how your movement against national education transitioned into the much larger movement to establish democracy in Hong Kong?
JW: Around 2011, China and the government of Hong Kong decided to implement brainwashing national education into the school curriculum. In 2012, through demonstrations and rallies and protests, we successfully triggered and motivated the people of Hong Kong to join the strike. At the first stages, there may have been only 300 people that joined. But later on, with more of the people being successfully touched and motivated by the moral appeals coming from students, more than 100,000 people eventually joined the Occupy action, especially after students began the hunger strike.
JFW: Why was 2014 the best moment for your movement?
JW: Hong Kong implemented one country, two systems all because of the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984. In 2014, it was the 30th anniversary of this declaration, and it was also the year of the National Congress of China. They made a statement suggesting that they would hold have a selection rather than an election [of Hong Kong’s chief executive]. People were disappointed and disheartened, so they turned their emotions into an anger and joined the civil disobedience movement.
JFW: Clearly, there’s a lot of support for this movement in Hong Kong — hundreds of thousands flooded the streets. And while it seems like a lot of issues were important in the protests, the issue of Beijing interference in the selection of potential executives seemed to be the most important. Does it seem like there’s a great desire for independence from the PRC?
JW: I would say that after the Umbrella Movement, and within these few years and recent developments, more people have joined the strike and are more disappointed and downhearted with the one-country, two-systems policy. That’s why the young generation may be more supportive of Hong Kong’s independence. However, I would say that I admit at this stage that Hong Kong does not have the capacity to reach the status of an independent country. Instead of fighting for independence, it would be more appropriate for us to fight for self-determination. This means that no-matter whether it’s one-country, one system, one country, two-systems, or independence,-this issue should be decided by the people, by voting in a referendum.
JFW: The protests, while certainly achieving a lot in the form of political pressure and collective awareness, did not result in policy changes. What would have to happen for Hong Kong to democratize and for the executive position to be autonomous from the PRC? Would China ever allow it?
JW: In 2017, there’ll be a chief-executive election, but no matter who will become the chief executive, he’ll still be under the control of the government in Beijing, and he’ll only be loyal to Beijing rather than people of Hong Kong. And this year is the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, so on the first of July, the anniversary, I believe the president of China, Xi Jinping, will give a speech as a statement towards the democracy movement in Hong Kong. So, it’ll be another critical point for Hong Kong to know the attitude of the Chinese government after the umbrella movement
JFW: And what exactly do you think his attitude will be, most likely?
JW: If we look at the track record of Xi Jinping, he has pushed backwards the human rights condition in mainland China, not only arresting activists, but also human rights lawyers. They have been kept in jail since the Umbrella Movement. A lot of the Western media that claims that rather than President Xi, it is Emperor Xi. I agree with this point of view. I just worry that under authoritarian suppression, Xi Jinping will promote more suppression in Hong Kong and China and maybe more booksellers, professionals, and businessmen that are against Chinese suppression will be kidnapped, disappeared, or abducted.
JFW: So that leads into my next question: a few months ago you were assaulted in Taipei, and currently you are under constant surveillance at home. Can you talk a bit about the safety challenges you’ve faced since 2014, both at the hands of the Chinese government and from civilians opposed to your politics?
JW: It’s hard for me to talk about my personal safety. Our phones have been hacked. Our email accounts have been hacked. I’ve been blacklisted in Mainland China. And the immigration departments of Singapore, Malaysia, and also Thailand just put me on their blacklists and will not allow me to enter their countries. I was even detained in the airport in Bangkok last October. It’s hard for me to ensure my own personal safety. And now I am still facing a court case and one day may be sent to jail, so it’s not an easy road for me to fight for democracy. But I would say that the human rights conditions in Hong Kong are still better than in China. While Hong Kong is still the place with the highest degree of autonomy and freedom under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, it’s still necessary for us to fight in the future
JFW: And can you talk a little bit about the court case that is underway right now?
JW: It’ll take place in July. At the end of the Umbrella Movement they arrested me and charged me, and now it’s time for me to go on trial in July. After the end of my school semester, my classmates and my schoolmates are going to other places. They’re traveling, going on trips, while I’m going to be facing a court case for my summer holiday. Quite ironic.
JFW: And so what exactly is the legal case against you?
JW: Contempt of courts and also the obstruction of police officers. Maximum penalty is 5 years in jail.
JFW: And what is the stated reason of the countries that have barred you from entry across Southeast Asia? Is it just political pressure from China?
JW: They say that it is an order and recommendation from the Chinese government. It’s quite inconvenient for me. I’m no longer allowed to enter most of the countries that people from Hong Kong travel to — like Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.. I just remember the head of the immigration department of Thailand saying that Joshua Wong has been blacklisted forever. He used the term “forever.” So, when I want to go on a trip with friends, I could go to Korea or Taiwan, but as you know, I’ve been assaulted in Taiwan so it’s hard for me to find a country that’s safe enough for me to travel to.
JFW: Shifting to the political situation within the PRC, hundreds of protests and demonstrations happen everyday across China — why do you think they never coalesce in the same way that the Umbrella Movement did? Does Hong Kong have more of a democratic or political ethos than the mainland does? What do you think it would take for the PRC to democratize?
JW: The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is always an issue and a question for people inside China and people around the world. The great economic power of the Chinese government has strengthened its legitimacy. But what will be the future of the legitimacy of the political status of Chinese government three or four decades in the future? No one knows. What will lead Hong Kong or China to democracy comes down to four factors: the first is social movements, including civil disobedience in the streets. The second factor will be the international community’s support. If we can get people around the world and government officials of foreign countries to show their support for democracy in Hong Kong and China, I think we can get more pressure and more power for us to reach democracy. And the third factor will be the internal conflict within the Chinese government. No one knows how long the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy will last in the next few decades. So, what we can do is try to continually strengthen the bargaining power of civil society, hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and get more rights back to ourselves and pressure the government.
JFW: What have countries like the United States done to support civil society in the past and what can they continue to do in the future?
JW: I think they should do more to support Hong Kong democracy. Supporting democracy in Hong Kong should be a bipartisan consensus in the US Congress, just like how Senate votes from Democrats and Republicans have tried to reintroduce the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. I think it’s the first stage to show support to the democracy movement in Hong Kong. So, I look forward to having this act put forward as soon as possible. And if the bill passes, I think it’ll be a really symbolic moment for US-Hong Kong relations.
JFW: And what more can the US do to support human rights in China itself?
JW: I would say that continually showing support to human rights activists in China, as in the cases of Chen Guangcheng or Li Tinting or others, is the best way to start. There are two main ways to support the democracy movement in China. The first is to support the human rights activists that are in jail. The second is to support democracy in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong is under the Communist Party of China even though it is not part of mainland China. But it is still the gateway and starting point for the international community to reach out and support the movement in China.
JFW: What political issues, besides democratization, will your political party Demosisto pursue? Will you call for action against things like inequality and workers’ rights in Hong Kong?
JW: We have positioned ourselves as the center-left. And what we hope to fight for are minority rights, labor rights, social welfare, retirement subsidies, and standard working hours. In Hong Kong we still don’t have standard working hour policies. So, what we hope is to get back our right to build our city with more equality. One of the reasons I founded Demosisto was to pursue civil disobedience,to advocate self-determination, and to also let people around the world know that the people of Hong Kong are ready to fight for democracy. That’s why we are the political party that mainly focuses on connecting to the international community.
JFW: In the West, it’s often considered that social media aids democratic struggles. But knowing how strong of a surveillance state China is, especially in how they personally monitor you, how do you now view the value of social media and media technologies in relation to democratic movements? Are they counterproductive? Have your views changed in any way since you’ve been limited by surveillance?
JW: Social media and media technology can be counterproductive but they still are an important part of democratic movements, because while traditional technology is controlled by the ruling class and the upper class, social media is not. If we want to break traditional barriers, and reach the younger generations to mobilize them to come join us in the streets, it is necessary to pursue social media like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.
JFW: Does Demosisto’s party platform draw inspiration from similar parties around the world?
JW: Yes, the Demosisto party platform draws inspiration from similar parties around the world, particularly the New Power Party in Taiwan and Podemos in Spain.
JFW: To what extent do you consider your problems global problems that aren’t unique to Hong Kong? And when you talk about your platform, to what extent do you think these aims might relate to similar struggles in the US?
JW: The lack of upward mobility among the young generation and the dominance of traditional political structures is a common problem in countries around the world. hat’s why the rise of youth activism in Hong Kong can inspire people around the world to care more about politics. And it is similar to the struggle in the US, especially in the way that so many people were depressed about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and put hope into Bernie Sanders. How we at Demosisto organized a powerful campaign before the parliamentary elections took reference from the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders.
Julian Watrous is a sophomore studying political science.