“It’s Time for Us To Set a New Political Agenda for Hong Kong”

A Q&A with Student Activist Joshua Wong

Last month, midway through a whirlwind tour of United States universities, Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong took a break for a crab cake and mac-and-cheese lunch at a Manhattan brasserie. Wong, 19, came to international prominence during the Umbrella Movement of 2014 as the face and voice of a generation of Hong Kong youngsters dissatisfied with politics in a Chinese city that was once a British colony. By then, Wong was already something of a veteran agitator. As a middle school student, he had organized a small but vocal group called Scholarism, to protest the introduction of a “patriotic education” curriculum he and other critics saw as being forced upon Hong Kong’s schools by Beijing.

Since the Umbrella Movement’s end, Wong has entered university, where he is studying politics and, just a few weeks ago, founded his own new political party, which he hopes will be a platform for his ambition to enter Hong Kong politics as an advocate for greater “self-determination” for his hometown. Last week, he and four other members of the party, Demosistō, were detained for causing an “unlawful disturbance” while protesting during the visit to Hong Kong of Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of China’s National People’s Congress. Wong was released from police custody last Thursday. Meanwhile, he awaits a verdict in a trial for unlawful assembly, which could carry a sentence of up to five years. Wong spoke with ChinaFile editors Susan Jakes and Jonathan Landreth and Foreign Policy Asia Editor Isaac Stone Fish. What follows is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

How do you feel things are going in Hong Kong?

Since the end of the Umbrella Movement, what we have tried to do is just define the next step for Hong Kong. Before the Umbrella Movement, people thought that under the promise of the Joint Declaration made by Beijing, Hong Kong deserved universal suffrage and democracy. But now we are 19 years past the handover [of Hong Kong from Britain to China] and we’ve gained nothing; we’ve had large-scale movement, the Umbrella Movement, we still haven’t gotten back universal suffrage. So it’s the time for us to set a new political agenda and to move forward to reach democracy.

So what is the new political agenda?

Self-determination. There was a negotiation about the future of Hong Kong, and only the British and China decided the arrangement of Hong Kong. When some Hong Kongers argued, “Why can’t Hong Kongers be involved in the negotiations?” all we faced was China’s denying Hong Kong any involvement in future negotiations over Hong Kong. Finally, they drafted the Joint Declaration and decided the future of Hong Kong… Our worst case prediction is that One Country, Two Systems will change to be One Country, One System, and Hong Kong will be fully merged with China … and Hong Kong won’t be Hong Kong anymore, it’ll just be called Hong Kong. The thing we worry about is that in the last century Beijing and the British [represented their own decisions as] “Hong Kongers deciding the future of Hong Kong.” We don’t want that same mistake to happen again in this century.

How do you get the majority of Hong Kong people to agree with that idea, and then somehow to get Beijing to agree to it?

If we want to get Beijing to agree on it, we need to get the international community’s support and we believe that under international law we deserve the right to self-determination.

Do you think there is a consensus in Hong Kong?

If you ask Hong Kongers to agree on self-determination, they may just ask, “What is self-determination?” Before asking them to agree, first let me familiarize you with this idea at the center of the movement. But if you ask Hong Kongers, no matter if they are from the business sector or they are just ordinary people in Hong Kong, I believe most of them would hope that the future of Hong Kong be determined by Hong Kongers. Because everyone, even some who are pro-Beijing, really are afraid that Hong Kong will turn from One Country, Two Systems to One Country, One System. And actually, there was a story a few months ago that HSBC had rejected their plan to set up their headquarters in Hong Kong because they were afraid of the end of 50 years of unchanged policy. Even if the human rights condition in Singapore seem to be worse than in Hong Kong, at least the political conditions are [more] stable than in Hong Kong.

If people hope to maintain the free market and the business environment of Hong Kong, it’s necessary for them to endorse self-determination to maintain at least the self-governance and autonomy of Hong Kong.



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In the first week of April, [along with] the chairperson of my new political party, Demosistō, I had a forum or a panel discussion in the Philippines and we have met with seven youth activists—from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia. We hope to build an East Asia community and connections and alliance and to let the ruling class know that not only government officials have connections and institutions. Even outside of institutions, youth activists still have the connections to share our same set of universal values: freedom, democracy.

Are you an idealist?

It’s necessary to use a pragmatic way to promote what you push for: an idealistic demand. If I’m just an idealist, then what I push for will get only a minority of support. How to trigger the people to care about your demands is the strategy of being a pragmatic idealist.

Does your spirituality and your practice of Christianity play into how you make your decisions every day?

It was the starting point for my involvement in, and caring about, social issues, but it’s hard to say that every decision I make comes from the guidance of God, or of Jesus. But actually my name, Joshua, is because my parents taught me to be like Joshua from the Bible, to lead the people out from Egypt and to get their life back.

Do you ever get pushback from Chinese students overseas?

Some mainlanders came to NYU and said that all of the things that I say were “rubbish,” but I expect that already. Being an activist and a politician, I can’t expect everyone in the world to support me, especially if their background—if they come from the mainland, they don’t know the importance of universal values… I just let them express their ideas. Having interaction with people who disagree with you is better than lack of conversation.

Did you ever disagree with your parents?

No. My parents have supported me since I founded Scholarism.

So how did you learn to disagree and feel confident?

At high school. From debating with the teachers, arguing with the unfair school policies arrangement … I got my parents in trouble. Since primary school, every time I debated and argued with the teachers I was the noisiest person. I was one of the troublemakers in my primary school.

What do overseas students know about Hong Kong?



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Just from reading some of the foreign newspapers, it’s hard to expect that everyone will be familiar with the condition or the context of Hong Kong. That’s why it’s really important for us to have a conversation with them. I believe that for the self-determination movement, it’s not just only the grassroots, it’s more and more the groundwork in the international community. Last year, I visited Oxford, the London School of Economics, and University College London, and this time I’ve visited Yale, Harvard, and MIT. I think these are the students who may be the elite in the future, in the political and business sectors. So I’m looking for a chance to elaborate my ideas and make them more familiar with the situation of Hong Kong.

Are you working on a 20-year plan or a five-year plan?

The Joint Declaration, the future negotiation of Hong Kong before 1997, started in 1982. So, with the same timeline, the future problem of 2047 will be handled around 2030. In the next 10 years, Demosistō and I hope to fill 10 years’ time to ensure the rights of Hong Kongers to have a self-determination referendum.

What do you plan to do professionally after you graduate?

I’d like to organize and campaign, rather than being a lecturer or professor writing academic theses that no one will read. I’d like to run for election.

You’ll actually run in an election?

I hope I may get a chance to run in an election.

Is there an age limit on when you can run for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council?

Twenty-one. That’s why I am not going to run in an election this year, even though I am the founder of a political party. I am 19 and the age limit is 21.

In the Umbrella Movment, what mistakes were made and what have you learned?

I think it’s hard to say that we made mistakes. When you’re organizing social movements, you can’t make every judgment by knowing the future. That’s why if you ask me what decision I should have made better, it’s hard for me to say, actually, because every decision is made based on that current social context.

Is your study of politics at university having any impact on your thinking about organizing social movements?

Not really, because it’s just related to the basic theory. For example, I learn about functionalism or Marxism, it’s not really related to my work. There are no classes on social movements and no classes on self-determination.

Where are your influences coming from? Books? Individuals?

I always say that people watch too much Hollywood film and expect that every politician will inform their politics or have their inspiration just because someone told them something or read one book and suddenly have the idea, “Oh, I need to save the world.” Yeah, but, actually, that’s just a Hollywood film. It’s been a process of constructing the idea inside my heart, from the experience of the Anti-Patriotic Education Movement in 2012.

How closely are you following politics in Beijing?

It’s my job to follow it every day, actually, but I’m not really familiar with every policy because I just have 24 hours per day and there are a lot of things I need to handle.

Can celebrity help your cause?

We have tried before already in the Umbrella Movement. We had some pop stars support us during the Umbrella Movement. It’s easy for us to connect it with the young people.

Is there anyone whose support surprised you?

Five years ago, none of the pop stars in Hong Kong cared about politics or supported any social movement in Hong Kong, but in the [last] year we have strengthened civil society and generated momentum to encourage everyone in Hong Kong, no matter whether they agree or disagree with us, to share their point of view on politics. That’s why during the Umbrella movement there were a lot of pop stars who voiced their support for us.

What are the chances that Beijing is going to respond positively?

In this moment, I think Hong Kong has a lack of bargaining power. I’m not expecting that in two years Beijing will allow Hong Kong to achieve self-determination. That’s why it’s a 10-year plan.

As you conduct outreach to universities and NGOs in the U.S., have you thought about the question of receiving foreign funding for your movement?

It’s not suitable for us to receive money from a foreign country. Last week, I said I’d [been] invited by Harvard University and different universities in the U.S. to give speeches and that I would travel to the U.S. The next day, the pro-Beijing newspaper claimed that I received the U.S. government support and that’s why I was going to the U.S. But actually, my trip is just mainly focused on the university visit, at Harvard. And the most ironic thing is the daughter of President Xi is also studying at Harvard University. So if this means that if I go to Harvard University I am controlled by the U.S. government, then the same must be true of Xi’s daughter. No one believes it. It’s a joke.

But there are pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong that receive money from overseas. Do you think they shouldn’t?

I don’t think it’s appropriate. I think having cooperation—but I think direct donation is not necessary.

Because of how it looks, or because it really changes the nature of how people behave politically?

I think it’s hard to say. I think it’s not really an appropriate arrangement. From the experience in the last century, China also sent a representative to travel around the world, especially seeking the endorsement of the United States for the Joint Declaration, so my only idea is if China’s government does things to lobby other governments, why can’t Hong Kong do the same thing?

What’s the mood among your friends not in the movement?

Young people in Hong Kong can’t see the future. We claim that Hong Kong is a well-developed country, we have a knowledge-based economy, but only 17 percent of students can enter university. Really low. It’s the lowest rate of well-developed countries.

Why is that?

The Hong Kong government tried to implement a big market, small government mindset into the education policy. And they wouldn’t want to add any expenditure to let young people or students in Hong Kong have a better education. I think it’s really contradictory with the idea to let Hong Kong be a global city. If you hope that Hong Kong can be a world financial center, of course you need to have more and more students in our city with a better education and more and more university students. They seem to be quite conservative and don’t want that expenditure, or they spend the money to build the infrastructure to increase the connection of Hong Kong and the mainland.

Do you solicit funds from student organizations from around the world?

No. We don’t think it’s necessary after we formed the political party.

Do you have a budget?

We have a campaign to raise two million dollars for the next election. Right now we have only 10 percent.

And you think you’ll be able to reach that goal?

Within three months, we’ll try our best.

If students around the world offered money would you accept?

We would accept personal donations.

How many people are in Demosistō now?

Thirty-four members. And we are trying to recruit hundreds, thousands of volunteers.

When did you set it up?

Last Sunday [April 17].

How many members did Scholarism have ultimately?

Two hundred.

Is your trial over?

My trial will end in June, when I will know if I will be convicted or not.

And the maximum sentence?

Five years.

What was the charge?

Inciting an unauthorized assembly.

What do you think about that charge?

We get freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly. In the world there should not exist any “unauthorized assembly.” No one should need to get any authorization from the government.

If you weren’t doing this, what other path might you be pursuing to make a change in Hong Kong Society?

Start-up. Enter the business sector. Sharing economy. Something like that. In high school, I was studying business administration and economics.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I like to eat delicious food. I like the local food of Hong Kong, especially dim sum and milk tea. I sometime watch cartoons, anime, Gundam … and on the 28th of April, it is the day we can watch Captain America 3: Civil War in Hong Kong. I love it very much.

Any superhero you particularly identify with?

I love Spider Man the most. Iron Man and Batman are just tycoons, Superman and Captain America are just the greatest American propaganda. Spider Man is more human. In school, he’s just a student. After school, he becomes Spider Man.

Do you think you’ll ever get a chance to meet with Xi Jinping, or anyone else on the standing committee?

No, of course not! The closest President Xi and I [ever got] was that in last October President Xi visited London. I was on the road, and I saw the car of President Xi, 100 meters away from me. That was the closest distance. It was really ironic. Being one of the people who live in the P.R.C., the closest distance from me and the president of China would be in London?