Wearing a baseball jacket over his collared shirt, nineteen year old Joshua Wong looks just like any other teenager. I can’t quite believe that the boy in front of me – who in all honesty looks younger than my little brother – is the same individual who managed to mobilise over 200, 000 people in protest of democracy in Hong Kong.
Fresh from giving an impassioned speech to a full Gladstone Room at the Oxford Union, Wong apologies for not being able to stay long.
“Sorry – I have to be up at five thirty to go to London. It’s really stressful.” He shakes his head. “And then I’ll go to Taiwan and back to Hong Kong, all in four days”.
The stress of international travel seems more concerning to him than the imminent hearing that he faces back in Hong Kong to determine whether he will serve prison time, even though he could be sentenced to up to five years. When I ask how he feels about the upcoming hearing, Wong just shrugs.
“They probably won’t make a decision this time. I just hope that, if I do have to go to prison, it won’t be during exams. Doing three weeks in the summer, that would be fine, but if it’s in April or May… I don’t want to have to spend another year studying!”
“I never get a day off,” he continues, laughing. Alongside leading Scholarism, the pro-democracy student campaign which he founded at the age of fourteen, Wong is also studying for a degree in Politics and Public Administration with the Open University, despite spending the majority of his exam period last year simultaneously masterminding the movement and preparing for what would turn into his largest campaign yet: the famous protest in Civic Square with the Yellow Umbrella revolution.
Wong is undoubtedly a busy man, famously attached to his mobile phone which allows him to keep in constant contact with his team. During the question and answer session following his talk, he can’t help stealing a couple of quick glances.
“Unlike in China, we can access Facebook in Hong Kong,” he explains as he answer the question of one talk attendee. “Our movement was born on Facebook and it’s been the best way to spread the message among young people.”
Wong’s activism has always been tied to his identity as a student. He describes passionately the importance of the “new generation” in Hong Kong; the high school students who went on hunger strike in 2012, the teenagers who faced tear gas fired by government forces and college students looking towards the future.
When I ask why it is the young people who have dominated the public face of resistance in Hong Kong, his answer is immediate. “Activists have fought for thirty years. I have only fought for nineteen.”
“People are used to the conservative way here, but young people have more progressive ideas. It’s quite unusual for young people to have time to be involved with politics, not like the UK and the US.”
In particular, Wong points out the example of Mhairi Black, the twenty year old who was recently elected as an MP for the SNP during the last election. He speaks passionately about his plan to run himself for a position in government – although he’ll have to change the age limit there first too, Wong’s next project.
With China’s President Xi also visiting the UK from 20th – 23rd October, Wong is quick to criticise the reality of the “two systems, one country” policy currently in place between Hong Kong and China, pointing towards human rights issues in China and the responsibility of the UK government to challenge them. Ultimately though, he is positive about the future of Scholarism, pointing out that young people want change.
“If I or any of the new generation get into power we can motivate people to show disobedience and encourage democracy.”