The young activists in Hong Kong’s fight for self-determination
Local elections seen as first sign of shift to younger democracy activists from the veterans
Campaigner Joshua Wong (right) greets Nathan Law as supporters share their joy at Law’s recent legislative council election victory. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters
Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong is running late for our interview at the Open University. The 19-year-old, whose youthful, open features and geeky spectacles were a defining image of the 79-day Occupy Central in 2014, is facing prison time for his role in organising the protests. He had a meeting with his lawyer.
“The worst case is they send me to jail immediately. We just have to hope for the best, prepare for the worst and wait for the judge to make a decision. It’s a long-term battle,” he says. Behind him, on a walkway on the campus, hangs a yellow banner of the Occupy movement.
Wong still looks younger than his 19 years today, and resembles the other students milling around the campus on Kowloon, but despite his youth, he is a seasoned figure, with an intensity that marks him as different from his peers. In 2012, aged 15, he convened the student group Scholarism, which blocked a plan to introduce “moral and national education” classes in Hong Kong schools. He knows how to campaign.
The Hong Kong government under chief executive CY Leung stood its ground in the face of the protests, and the Occupy movement fizzled out.
But now Hong Kong is experiencing a new chapter. Although the protests failed to win concessions, the self-determination movement has received a fresh impetus this month with the surprise election of six young pan-Democrats to Hong Kong’s legislative council.
As he is not yet 20, Wong was too young to run in the council elections but he is a co-founder of the Demosisto party, which calls for self-determination for Hong Kong. The elections are seen as the first sign of a generational shift to younger democracy activists from the veterans.
He is a key figure in the politicisation of Hong Kong, which was previously known as a freewheeling capitalist former Crown colony, and he believes that the success in the polls of the pro-democracy activists will turn self-determination into part of the mainstream political debate in Hong Kong.
“No one believed that he would win so many votes. It’s a miracle. How Eddie Chu and Nathan Law, iconic activists, can enter the legislative council means that self-determination is not just a minority, radical ideology. The movement is not just young people or the lower classes or poor grassroots people, it’s a hope of society,” says Wong.
His co-founder of Demosisto is Nathan Law, who was also one of the leaders of the 2014 “umbrella movement”, a reference to the yellow umbrellas carried by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong in 2014 that became a symbol of their defiance. Aged 23, Law was elected to the legislative council and will become its youngest member to date.
“The result was better than expected and it shows that Hong Kong people treasure their choices and they want change,” Law tells The Irish Times. Law did cultural studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, then became the secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students after the occupation.
“They want new faces in [the legislative council] and there are lots of expectations. The three of us want to uphold self-determination and I think the result sends a very clear message about self-determination and civic society,” says Law.
“People want a different kind of society. There is more and more support because in recent years there has been more and more erosion of our human rights, and the calls have been getting larger and larger for more autonomy .
“The next step for us that we need time to become familiar with the council issues. There will be more and more discussion about self-determination. Also land and property issues,” he adds.
“Beijing will do anything to interfere with us. But we knew this before the election. We need to accommodate our pressure and civic society.
“We need a new dialogue. But we know that if you don’t have power, they won’t listen to you,” said Law. He is determined that Hong Kong should not become “just another Chinese city”.
The arrest of five Hong Kong booksellers, who vanished into Chinese police custody last year, has galvanised support for democracy among young people in Hong Kong, who fear that Beijing is riding roughshod over the Basic Law, rules that give the territory a high degree of autonomy since the return to Chinese rule in 1997.
One of Demosisto’s calls is for a referendum on Hong Kong’s future after 2047. That is the year the “one country, two systems” model under which the territory has been governed since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 expires.
“‘One Country, Two Systems’ is not the way forward for Hong Kong,” he has said. The same goes for Yau Wai-ching, also a member of Youngspiration, who becomes the youngest woman on the legislative council at 25.
Other strident new voices in Hong Kong democratic politics include Cheng Chung-tai (25), a member of the localist group called Civic Passion. “I really hope that Hong Kong people can turn in the right direction. This is our last chance to take an aggressive strategy,” said the academic during a radio debate.
Environmentalist Eddie Chu Hoi-dick won more than 84,000 votes in the election, the highest number won by any single candidate.
Beijing will not tolerate calls for what it interprets as separatism. The Basic Law guarantees limited democracy in Hong Kong, but Beijing is determined to not allow any such sentiment to spread across the border into China.
The pro-Beijing legal scholar Song Sio-Chong wrote in the China Daily how legal manoeuvres could be used to stop those advocating independence, so “with proper judicial involvement, the next-term [legislative council] can hopefully conduct its meetings free from being annoyed by those advocating separatism”.
Bargaining powerZhang DejiangMacau
“From our point of view, I admit that at this moment having a dialogue is meaningless. What we are trying to do is win more bargaining power for us, push forward self-determination and build up the majority consensus for Hong Kongers,” says Wong.
“For Demosisto the ultimate goal is not about independence or not, it is to let Hong Kong to have democracy but more important, to have self-determination and self-governance. It’s just like we claimed in the umbrella movement – we must determine our own destiny.”