Political movements often conjure images of passionate university-goers championing progressive views they learned on campus. But the long, storied history of Hong Kong’s student-led political movements is taking a different turn: The most prominent student leader of the territory’s pro-democracy protests is only 17 years old.
Sporting heavy black glasses and a bowl cut, Joshua Wong Chi-fung doesn’t exactly cut a menacing figure. But his activism against what many in Hong Kong perceive to be the Chinese Communist Party’s encroachment onto their freedoms has already attracted Beijing’s attention. Mainland authorities call him an “extremist.” A party document on national security identifies Wong by name as a threat to internal stability. Pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong, meanwhile, accuse him of working for the US Central Intelligence Agency to infiltrate Hong Kong schools. (Wong denies the charges.)
Joshua Wong’s fight against “brainwashing”
Wong got his start in 2011, when he and fellow students founded a group called “Scholarism,” which they thought was catchier than the direct translation of the Chinese, meaning “scholarly trends.” Wong and Scholarism rose to prominence in 2012, when the Hong Kong government tried to roll out Communist Party-approved “patriotic” education in Hong Kong’s public schools, to replace civics classes. The curriculum included textbooks like one titled “The China Model,” which characterized China’s Communist Party as “progressive, selfless and united,” and criticized multi-party systems like Hong Kong’s while avoiding major (unflattering) events—notably, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacres of 1989—reports the New York Times (paywall).
One Hong Kong journalist likened the move to a Trojan horse that dissolved Hong Kong’s identity; Wong called it ”brainwashing,” an attempt to require students to “develop an emotional attachment to China,” as he put it in this video by the South China Morning Post (paywall). In Sep. 2012, Wong and Scholarism mobilized more than 120,000 people to demonstrate (paywall) against the education program, including a slew of students who went on hunger strike. Within days, the Hong Kong government scrapped the plan for mandatory implementation.
Wong’s next battle: “universal suffrage”
But Wong and Scholarism knew that as long as Hong Kong lacks representative government, both the education issue and the Chinese government’s failed 2003 attempt to impose US Patriot Act-style rules on Hong Kong would eventually resurface. So they began researching the controversy that’s now galvanizing the Umbrella Revolution: universal suffrage.
This issue is really confusing—and, as even Wong admits, “really boring.” The background goes something like this: Hong Kong is governed by what’s called the Basic Law, which legal scholars from the then-British colony and the mainland wrote up prior to the 1997 handover. The law promises Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047 (after which, it is assumed, it will merge with the People’s Republic of China for good). It also indicates, although vaguely, that the ultimate objective is for the chief executive and the congress to be elected by universal suffrage by Hong Kong’s seven million people.
That’s not how it is at the moment. Hong Kong’s chief executive is currently chosen by an “election committee” made up of 1,193 members selected to represent ”functional constituencies,” such as business and labor groups. Beijing controls who is on the committee, and, in turn, whom the committee elects; the committee also decides who runs. Ultimately, since the Chinese government still has to officially “appoint” the chosen candidate, it has veto power over the chief executive.
In 2007, the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, promised that by 2017, Hong Kong’s chief executive “may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage.” Some in Hong Kong read that to mean by 2017, they’d have fully democratic elections. But the NPC, evidently, had something else in mind: that each and every Hong Kong citizen would be allowed to vote—but only for one of three candidates selected by the (Communist Party-picked) “electoral committee.”
Civic nomination vs. Communist Party nomination
What’s bizarre is that many ostensibly pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong accept this policy—including, most prominently, Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, according to Suzanne Pepper, who blogs on Hong Kong politics.
Wong highlights that this cynical pragmatism plays to the mainland’s bullying, recalling that Albert Ho, leader of the Democratic Party, once asked him during a radio show, “Do you really think Beijing will accept public nomination?”
Only when the people select the candidates—or when they select the people who select the candidates—can suffrage truly be universal, says Wong. He and Scholarism have championed the idea that civic nomination was essential to create a truly representative democracy. When the Hong Kong government’s working group on the election issue called for public recommendations, Scholarism’s joint proposal with the Hong Kong Federation of Students was one of only two that insisted on public nomination of candidates for the election of chief executive, writes Pepper.
Flash forward to the “Umbrella Revolution”
This careful analysis of the murky laws that govern the relationship between the mainland and its wealthy capitalist territory is what’s landed Joshua Wong at the center of the showdown with the Communist Party. And, for that matter, his role in the protests erupting in Hong Kong’s downtown thoroughfares. Along with 12 other student activists arrested on Sep. 26, the Hong Kong police dragged a screaming, bleeding Wong away as he and others demonstrated outside government headquarters. Many were soon freed. Wong, however, remained in custody until Sep. 28, when a Hong Kong high court ordered his release, citing a lack of legal grounds for continued detention, over objections from government lawyers (paywall); the judge also quashed government efforts to attach conditions to Wong’s release, said his lawyer.
Scuffling with the police is the type of thing that usually leaves Hong Kong citizens wary of “politics.” But the students are now winning the sympathy of broader Hong Kong society. And regardless of how his approach to civil disobedience comes across, Wong’s recent arrest nonetheless symbolizes what makes Hong Kong different from the mainland: its rule of law.
Separation of powers allowed the court to overrule government wishes to detain Wong for longer and release him conditionally. The court’s decision was based on a writ of habeas corpus, which guarantees the right to have a judge decide whether the authorities have lawful grounds for a person’s arrest.
Those protections don’t exist in mainland China, where rules are not conducted by law, but by government fiat. That said, mainland China relies heavily on Hong Kong as an international center of finance and commerce, which is only made possible by its strong property and contract rights. Unless Wong and his fellow students prevail, that rule of law the mainland depends on could soon disappear.