HONG KONG — The slight teenager with heavy rectangular glasses and a bowl cut stood above the ocean of protesters who had engulfed downtown Hong Kong. His deep voice was drowned out by cheers, but the crowd did not mind: They knew him and his message. It was Joshua Wong, 17, a student activist who has been at the center of the democracy movement that has rattled the Chinese government’s hold on the city.
“When I heard the national anthem starting to play, I certainly did not feel moved so much as angry,” Wong said a few hours later, after a protest at a flag-raising ceremony Wednesday to mark the Chinese National Day holiday. “When it tells you, ‘Arise! All those who refuse to be slaves!’ — why is our treatment today any different from the slaves?”
Wong emerged as a figure in Hong Kong’s activist circles two years ago, when he rallied students against a government plan to introduce “patriotic education” in schools, attacking it as a means of Chinese Communist Party indoctrination. He played a pivotal role in setting off the demonstrations of the past week, leading a surprise charge on a government building that resulted in his arrest and prompted thousands to take to the streets ahead of schedule.
Wong is troubling confirmation for the authorities that the first generation in Hong Kong to grow up under Chinese rule is by many measures also the one most alienated from Beijing’s influence. He was born less than nine months before the former British colony’s handover to China in 1997 and raised at a time the party has tried mightily to win over Hong Kong residents and shape them into patriotic Chinese citizens.
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His prominence in the protest movement also embodies a shift in politics — youth anger amplified over the Internet, beyond the orbit of traditional political parties — that has confounded the local government and infuriated its Communist supervisors in the mainland.
That shift has made a political star of Wong, who comes across as a hybrid of a solemn politician and a bashful teenage sensation. These days, if he is not surrounded by admiring supporters, he is usually mobbed by television cameras and reporters. Even before the most recent round of protests, strangers would sometimes approach him to shake hands or offer a pat on his shoulders and ask about his exams and schoolwork.
Wong is aware of the influence that he and his classmates wield. As early as July, well before Beijing proposed the election rules that are the target of the current demonstrations, Wong told The New York Times: “Electoral reform is a generational war.”
Urged square takeover
Few expected Wong to have such a critical effect on events this past week. The democracy movement had appeared to be flagging, and students who had been boycotting classes were planning to mark the end of their campaign quietly Friday night with a showing of video messages of support from Taiwanese activists.
As the video ended, Wong, speaking on the stage beside the screen, took many in the audience by surprise by urging them to seize “Civic Square,” the name that activists use for a forecourt to the Hong Kong government headquarters. Moments later, about 200 protesters eluded guards and took the square to loud cheers. Wong, however, was arrested before he made it and was dragged away in handcuffs.
News and images of Wong’s arrest spread quickly on social media, and the occupation of the forecourt became the nucleus of a protest that attracted tens of thousands of supporters. The police attempted to break up the demonstration Sunday with arrests, pepper spray and tear gas, provoking more public anger and bringing even larger crowds onto the streets, which have been occupied since.
The authorities held Wong for two nights before a judge granted a habeas corpus petition for his release.
Wong, who is just shy of his 18th birthday, is a veteran of theatrical protest politics. While in high school, at age 14, he and a classmate formed a youth group, Scholarism, to fight the “patriotic education” plan proposed by Beijing’s hand-picked leader in Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying.
Students just the start
At first, their Internet-based movement was seen as quaintly naive, but as more students joined, it became a potent force in the campaign against the curriculum changes. After big street protests in 2012, the Hong Kong government shelved the plan.
Since then, Scholarism has been a major force in promoting demands for democratic elections that would allow voters to nominate candidates for the city leader, and it promoted a student boycott of classes last week.
“If you told people five years ago that high-school students would get involved in politics, they wouldn’t have believed you,” he told The New York Times in July. “For students, what we have is persistence in our principles and stubbornness in our ideals,” he said, adding: “If students don’t stand in the front line, who will?”
Hong Kong’s news media has treated him with some of the intensity that it usually devotes to film and pop idols. In July, interest was so high in his university entrance-exam score that he held a news conference. (Wong’s score turned out to be middling by Hong Kong’s rigorous standards, and he has enrolled in a local university that specializes in distance learning.)
Wong has said he acquired his passion for politics from his parents, Grace and Roger Wong, Protestants who kindled a concern for social injustice and have said they are proud of their son but otherwise stay out of the spotlight.