Netflix’s new Umbrella Revolution documentary debuts just ahead of the Tiananmen Square anniversary

Joshua Wong, activist.
Joshua Wong, activist.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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The most interesting thing about Netflix’s Joshua Wong: Teenager Vs. Superpower is its launch date, today, just weeks away from protest season in Hong Kong.

With this timing, watching Netflix’s documentary on Hong Kong’s most famous young revolutionary is a curtain-lifter, as the stage is set for another likely clash between Hong Kong residents and their Chinese rulers.

This July 1st marks the 20-year anniversary of the Hong Kong Handover, when the former British colony was returned to Beijing. As well, it is traditional in Hong Kong to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings on June 4, the only such memorial ceremony on Chinese soil.

Over the last decade, these occasions has been marked by street demonstrations attended by large crowds expressing increasing displeasure with Beijing’s encroaching rule.

The largely peaceful nature of Hong Kong’s street demonstrations changed in 2014 when police fired tear gas at participants in what came to be known as the Umbrella Revolution—demonstrations which paralyzed major parts of the city for well over two months. Wong, just 19 then, became the symbol of the revolution, with clips of his skinny frame dragged by riot police playing over the world’s news channels.

Directed by Joe Piscatella, the Netflix documentary attempts to explain—with limited success—how this young man came to lead this epic exercise in civil disobedience. Was it luck? Personal charisma? Tremendous oratorical gifts?

More like a certain uncompromising doggedness. Wong gets his start in civil disobedience as a precocious 14-year-old who objects to a move to infuse China patriotism into the Hong Kong school curriculum. Wong’s group, Scholarism, succeeds in getting Hong Kong’s leaders to back down from the proposal.

Even then, the young Wong is demonstrably unflappable, poised, and on-message dealing with media and politicians. His weapon: a blunt, child-like ability to get to the heart of the matter. In in an exchange with then-Hong Kong leader CY Leung over the launch of the education project, Wong isn’t easily fobbed off by Leung’s explanation that the project is simply an exploratory initiative. “If we agree on the initiation period, it means we are agreeing,” he ripostes.

Fellow activist Agnes Chow tellingly describes Wong as someone who is “digital”—“he is either ‘on’ or ‘off.’”

Indeed, Wong is a riddle that the documentary does not fully explain. What powers him? His parents are religious Christians, and Wong got his start in community organizing through church activities. Nonetheless, Wong states he believes in action, not prayer. He has some skill in social media, using Facebook and Youtube to build his base, but the documentary doesn’t delve into that. Instead, there are long and rather dull segments of Wong doing the shoe-leather of politicking, handing out pamphlets, and making speeches amidst throngs of uninterested commuters.

What humanizes this rather machine-like revolutionary are his friends, who remind us how heartbreakingly young they all are. Derek Lam, chubby with comically round glasses, describes China as “the rising darkness that destroys the things in Hong Kong” and adds, “If you want to defeat Darth Vader, than you have to train some Jedi.”

It’s about 40 minutes into the show before the action starts, with footage of police in riot gear firing into the crowds, students unfurling umbrellas as puny shields, and awe-inspiring aerial views of Hong Kong’s arterial roadways clogged up by masses.

But the Umbrella protest dies out over time due to attrition, infighting, and Beijing’s implacability. The Communist Party leaders might have backed down over some changes in local school curricula, but they would not allow the city’s residents to freely choose their own leaders. (Indeed, earlier this year a small committee picked Carrie Lam to replace CY Leung as Hong Kong’s chief executive—a process, Wong told the Washington Post, which resembled “a selection, not an election.”)

The documentary ends with Wong disbanding Scholarism, with plans to start a political party. Chugging Sprite, the teenagers—too young to drink or vote yet, offer a toast, “To our wasted youth!”

Joshua Wong the documentary suggests that time and limitless energy is on the side of Wong and his friends, but it is not.

Under “one country, two systems”—the system brokered by Great Britain and China to prevent a panicked mass exodus from Hong Kong—a real possibility after Tiananmen in 1989—Hong Kong enjoys limited autonomy for 50 years. After that, the road map ends.

We have now reached the 20 year mark. Many of the expectations held in 1997—that Hong Kong would change China, that its relative freedoms would infect the mainland—have not come to pass. China is changing Hong Kong.

This is why, unlike previous generations of Hong Kong activists, Wong and his generation are no longer willing to work with Beijing. They advocate a complete break. “Hong Kong belongs to Hong Kong,” states Wong flatly. “We are totally not China people. We are unique.”

Wong was still in diapers when the Handover occurred, but 2047 is very much on his mind. “No matter what the price, we can’t dump this on the next generation. This generation must complete our mission.”

And so, a collision course is set.