Joshua Wong reflects on Hong Kong’s 1997 handover: “We desire and thirst for freedom, democracy”

I believe.
I believe.
Image: Tyrone Siu/Reuters
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This extract was first published in 2017 and has been excerpted with permission from PEN Hong Kong from the essay “My Journey as a Student Activist,” by Joshua Wong, part of the anthology Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place, from Blacksmith Books.

I’m a twenty-year-old university student, born a year before the handover.

Having grown up under Chinese rule, I don’t have any memory of colonial Hong Kong or feel any attachment to it. Instead, I was spoon-fed daily a hearty serving of self-evident truths: that Hong Kong is and always will be an ‘inalienable part’ of China; and that the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, always has our best interests in mind under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework.

But twenty years after the transfer of sovereignty, I now know an altogether different set of facts: that Beijing continues to deny us the right to a free vote in breach of the Joint Declaration, an international treaty it signed with Britain in 1984; that, as a result, Hong Kong is stuck in a rut on its never-ending path to democracy; and that the CCP has launched an all-out attack on our civil liberties…

Six years ago, under Beijing’s directives, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government announced a citywide plan to introduce a ‘national education curriculum’ in all primary and secondary schools. It was a thinly-veiled attempt to inculcate in our youth a sense of unquestioning patriotism and blind loyalty to the CCP. Perhaps because veteran politicians had been so far removed from the classroom, the news drew little interest from the opposition parties.

I was fourteen years old at the time, just starting secondary two. I knew I couldn’t stand quietly by while a brainwashing curriculum poisoned our education. It was then that I founded a student organisation called Scholarism with a small group of secondary school students to defend free and independent thinking in the classroom through demonstrations and other means of grassroots resistance.

Our campaigns had little traction at first—our street rallies drew only a few dozen participants and our soapbox speeches didn’t get much press coverage. Our efforts were met with a general sense of resignation, as many people thought it futile to try to push back against Beijing’s agenda.

More critically, Hong Kong society had yet to fully embrace the idea of student activism. Our rote-based education system was—and still is—so focused on grades and public exams that anything else was considered a distraction. This was understandable. For generations of Hong Kongers, the only means of upward mobility and the only way to meaningfully contribute to society have been to obtain a respectable university degree (preferably in business administration) and a professional accreditation (in finance, accounting, law or medicine). Politics was so far off the beaten path for a teenager that it must be discouraged at any cost.

But the Bible has taught me well. St Paul told us not to ‘let anyone look down on you because you are young’ and I took that lesson to heart. The night before the national education curriculum was rolled out, not long after literature sponsored by the Department of Education described the CCP as a ‘progressive, selfless and unifying ruling body’, we finally succeeded in galvanizing the public to stand up against the government’s propaganda. More than 120,000 citizens showed up at ‘Civic Square’ outside the government headquarters in support of our movement, forcing the SAR government to withdraw the plan the following day…

I believe elitism in politics is over, and a new path to achieving democracy should be charted by young people who have the most at stake in the future of our city. I also believe that real changes are brought about not by playing by the old rules but by civil disobedience and mass uprisings, and that young people, free from financial burdens and family demands, have the least to lose should they be arrested or convicted and therefore should take a more prominent role.

Those beliefs enabled us to embrace the Occupy Movement of 2014 by organising, in the lead-up to the actual street occupation, a citywide class boycott, various mass protests and a referendum on electoral reform in which over 800,000 citizens participated. In fact, it was our impromptu decision to retake the Civic Square on September 26th, two days before Occupy erupted, that led to the start of the 79-day struggle…

Twenty years ago, the idea of a large-scale political uprising that would paralyse the city for months was simply unthinkable. Equally implausible was the notion that a university student could enter LegCo [Legislative Council of Hong Kong] as an advocate for the city’s self-determination. Twenty years after the handover, what was once unthinkable and implausible is part of a political reality, proving that Hong Kongers are not just economic beings and are much more than what meets the eye. We desire and thirst for freedom, democracy and the rule of law just like anyone else. And we are prepared to fight tooth and nail for all of those things.

Translated from the Chinese by Jason Y. Ng.

Read Quartz’s complete series on the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover.