Four years later, it’s clear that the reforms advocated by 2014’s youth-led, pro-democracy protest movement won’t take shape.
“You remember me!”
I couldn’t help laughing when Joshua Wong said those words to me, as I walked up to shake his hand after a small protest gathering he had helped organize broke up. It seemed a supremely strange comment to come from the mouth of the 21-year-old activist, whose face had been featured in television newscasts worldwide and had graced the cover of Time during Hong Kong’s 2014 protests.
We had met twice before this most recent brief encounter. A local historian who knew of my scholarly interest in protest movements introduced me to Joshua in 2013, when he was only 15 but already well known in the city for the leading role he had played in a successful effort to keep mainland-style patriotic education out of Hong Kong high schools.
We then spent an hour talking in a coffee shop in 2016, at a time when many had come to see Hong Kong’s protests, dubbed the Umbrella Movement for the object protesters used to shield their faces from tear gas and pepper spray, as a failure. Not only had they been unable to achieve their stated goal of expanding democratic procedures in Hong Kong, but a general sense had taken hold that repression was on the rise in a city whose local authorities were beholden to Beijing.
Along with those meetings, I have written essays about Joshua’s actions and the way the local authorities have tried to silence him. I’ve seen three documentaries dealing with him, and in one of these, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, I appear as a commentator.