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Passionate teen with an umbrella

Joshua Wong measures the power of his generation

Joshua Wong • Autor: Ilustrace Pavel Reisenauer, Ilustrace - Pavel Reisenauer
Joshua Wong • Autor: Ilustrace Pavel Reisenauer, Ilustrace - Pavel Reisenauer

He doesn't have a driver's license, can't buy a beer, and can't vote. That's going to change this week, because on October 13, he turns 18. He's on the threshold of bigger changes as well. The Chinese government is nervous about those, they have already tried to imprison him for a few days. They have tried tear gas and police batons on him as well. According to Chinese media, which refer to documents from security services, he is considered to be a „threat to internal stability“ by the PRC and to be an asset of the American CIA, which has fostered him as a „political superstar.“ The fragile teenager with oversize glasses and a boy's hairstyle looks like he can barely manage to carry a school bag, but his slender shoulders bear a much greater burden. He's the main face of today's „umbrella revolution“ in Hong Kong.

His name is Joshua Wong, and this isn't the first time that he has brought crowds to the streets of his city. When he was 15, he started the Scholarism initiative to protest the Hong Kong government's willingness to teach Chinese history according to the Beijing's specifications. Wong organized a demonstration of 120,000 in 2012. The government changed course and Wong became a name to remember. But he wasn't happy with that outcome: „When a mass movement begins to bow to one leader, that is a problem,“ he said then. "What's important is our goal rather than the role of an individual.

These words were a surprise from a 15-year old, but Joshua Wong is not a typical kid. His passion is politics, social movements, and revolutions, which he studies.

He wasn't just a flash in the pan, he became a media darling and happily did interviews. When he graduated this year, he organized a press conference, because there was widespread interest in his grades. „I'm not an A student,“ he explained frankly. Cs in Math and English, a B in Chinese. His only A was in liberal studies.

Despite these indifferent prospects, he was admitted to university. The school year had yet to begin, and Joshua Wong already organized a big event. Together with two other volunteers, he organized an unofficial referendum, polling public opinion on the question of free elections in 2017, which elections were part of the UK-PRC agreement in 1997, when Hong Kong passed into Chinese control. That agreement should have guaranteed such an election, so that the special status of the city of seven million, a former British colony, would continue. But Beijing does not wish to hold to the agreement, and proposed a law by which the people of Hong Kong could in two years only „freely“ choose among candidates approved by Beijing.

Almost 1 million people took part in the referendum, and the vast majority wanted free elections. Beijing made threats, and the students from July 1 ( the anniversary of the handover from the brits) started protest marches through Hong Kong. Half a million people turned out and the Chinese regime, which guides the current Hong Kong government, lost its nerve. The police detained 500 people, Joshua Wong among them. „We told ourselves that Hong Kong could be free even without democracy“ Wong said. „But now we see that if we do not stand up, our rights will quickly fall away.“

The importance of family

This prelude to current events was critical.  The protesters, with Joshua Wong, tried their strength.  Near the end of September, Beijing approved a law banning open free elections, and in October, the students occupied the center of Hong Kong.  They set up barricades around government buildings and in the financial center, critical to the city's business life.  Most inhabitants of Hong Kong were on the students' side, and even many businessmen tolerated the the losses caused by the protests.  


he head of the local government, CY Leung, threatened mass arrest and riot police. The students responded by asking for his resignation since he served Beijing.  After some days, the police indeed began lobbing tear gas canisters and making arrests.  Joshua Wong, bruised from the billy clubs, was among the first.  He left prison after four hours on the basis of of a judge's ruling– judges are still independent in Hong Kong, as is the media.  And when Wong returned to the streets, he found crowds of in the hundreds of thousands calling his name.  The legend of the amazing teen who will save freedom for Hong Kong and won't back down even from an opponent as big as China, this legend was now widespread.  


What is Joshua Wong really like?  Which traits and experiences have formed him and and why is he in particular the umbrella revolution's face in the media?  He's definitely full of energy.  When he talks, the words hurtle out in staccato bursts, maybe because he is dyslexic, and rapid speech is his compensation for slow reading.  His passion for freedom and democracy is contagious; he knows that without a struggle, the fight for freedom will be lost.  „We must fight every battle as if it were our last,“ he says in interviews with global media.  He has a sense of tact as well: „We're not against compromise with with those in charge,“ he says but to compromise, one must first show strength, „otherwise your opponent will not take you seriously.“  The Even more so if your opponent is the PRC itself.


When he was small, Joshua's father took him to the poor parts of town, to see the life of people below the poverty line.  „These people have never heard God's word, they live with isolation and despair,“ he would say.  His parents were middle-class, his father works for a multinational and his mother keeps the family home.   More important is that they are christians (protestants) and that their faith is an essential component of Joshua's outlook.  Democracy and freedom are for him part of the righteous path.  


Today's Hong Kong is still a relatively free city, but justice is elusive there.   The gap between rich and poor is according to the Gini coefficient among the deepest in the world, and has long exceeded the threshold which indicates a risk of social unrest.  The city really is run by families of oligarchs well connected with Beijing.  There are cartels controlling sectors from retailing to power generation and transport.  „you might think of Hong Kong as a free market, but the market is only for outside transactions,“ writes Joe Studwell (author of a book on Asia's dynamic economies) in the Financial Times.  The result is high prices, which most affect the city's poor.  


Joshua Wong saw this injustice all through childhood.  He remembers asking as a child „Why is my life so comfortable, when others do not have enough?“ 

Revolutionary Aesthetics

„He's so young but so wise,“ said his solicitor Michael Vidler in The New York Times. „He's any mother's ideal of a well-raised son– polite, decisive, and hardworking.“ This teen is simply an ideal representative of the movement, which seems as well-intentioned and clean as he is himself. The umbrella became the symbol of the revolution by accident, but it embodies a waterproof defense against dictatorship. Initially the students carried umbrellas as a shield against the tropical sun. Then they served to screen them from tear gas and pepper spray. Their crossed-arm gesture represents disagreement with the government, explains Wong– his scholarism movement used the same gesture. The yellow ribbons that they wear come from the seventies hit about steadfastness so popular here, „Tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree.“

These symbols serve to unite the demonstrators. They're in the streets 24/7, sat in circles and debated. Their professors came to them, lectured in the streets, and conveyed wishes for success from all over the world. They also cummunicated using the FireChat app, which works even if wi-fi is blocked, which the police threatened to do. This „electronic megaphone“ works even without data access to the internet writes the Atlantic, and first appeared in March. In one day, there were 200,000 Hong Kong downloads.

What next? The Beijing regime and the Hong Kong government are betting that the students will get tired, and that residents willl have enough of the economic slowdown. Last week, the crowds really were thinner on the ground, because CY Leung promised talks. On Thursday, he reneged, the same day as Australian police began investigating a bribery scandal over payments of 7 million dollars from Australian construction firm UGL to Leung.

All that's certain is the Beijing will not back down and threatens „unimaginable consequences“ if the protests for free elections continue. The uprising may find renewed strength, because the students' disappointment and Leung's financial scandal are a toxic brew. Jochua Wong among other leaders called for renewed protests last Friday.

Joshua Wong said to CNN last week, „The battle will be brief“ since thinking of a war of attrition „means never gaining your goal.“ This impatience is understandable in him, he's just turning 18. It seems though, that he is fated to struggle and freedom in the years ahead, regardless of how the umbrella revolution will end.

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