Sometimes it takes a foreigner who is fighting for democracy to remind Americans of how much we take our system for granted. Such a wake-up call is particularly useful when we have a president-elect who admires strongmen and displays indifference to democratic norms.
So it was bracing to talk with Joshua Wong, a leader of the movement for democracy in Hong Kong in the face of implacable opposition from Beijing. All the more so since the slight, intense Wong has just turned 20 years old.
While many Americans fear that Donald Trump may abuse civil rights, Wong and his fellow activists are challenging a Beijing regime that brooks no dissent. They know the odds are against them.
“When we fight for democracy we don’t have a formula,” Wong told me, in Washington, D.C. “It is a dynamic process. We are trying to create a miracle.” Yet they fight on.
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Hong Kong is a former British colony that was granted considerable autonomy when Britain turned it over to China in 1997. But Beijing considers it an inalienable part of China. The territory’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, permits the territory to have its own capitalist economy and political system until 2047.
But Beijing has been steadily restricting those political freedoms, especially in 2014 when it insisted on prescreening candidates for chief executive (whom, the Basic Law says, should ultimately be chosen by universal suffrage). As a high-school student, Wong became world-renowned in 2014 when he led the Umbrella Movement, a 79-day sit-in in the center of Hong Kong protesting Beijing’s prescreening directive.
You may have seen the pictures of massive crowds, often reaching 100,000, sitting under an endless canopy of umbrellas in the pouring rain and often braving tear gas.
The protesters lost that round, as Beijing refused to budge. Wong was vilified by the Chinese government, assaulted, and arrested — and still faces some charges. But, says Wong, “We still created a miracle with the Umbrella Movement.
“It was the most important (democracy) movement since Tiananmen (Square). Our movement was not just young people, but also middle-class professionals and the elderly.”
And two years later, Wong and fellow democracy activists moved into electoral politics, fielding candidates for the Legislative Council. Wong co-founded a new political party called Demosisto, which daringly called for self-determination for Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy forces from several parties won 30 seats in elections to the 70-member council this fall. Then came the newest setback. Pressed by Beijing, Hong Kong courts banned two of the youthful winners from taking office because they refused to swear loyalty to Beijing.
Two steps forward, 1¾ back.
I asked Wong whether he was scared. President Xi Jinping has been squelching any hint of political activism on the Chinese mainland. The once-freewheeling Hong Kong press has been intimidated. Despite the Basic Law, the president clearly has Hong Kong activists in his sights.
“It’s a long-term battle for us,” Wong told me. “We are fighting against the largest communist dictatorship in the world. We hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
He says he is in the U.S. meeting with think tanks, media and members of Congress to explain the importance of Hong Kong’s democracy struggle. He is fully aware that a President Trump is unlikely to be receptive.
“I worry about the isolationist strategy of the president-elect.”
But this savvy young activist even has an argument for Trump. “Apart from the moral question, it is also necessary for businesses and investors to care about Hong Kong because it is the most important financial center in Asia,” he said. “How Beijing puts aside the rule of law and independence of the courts in Hong Kong affects business interests and the stock markets.
“We hope isolationism won’t be the policy of the next U.S. president.”
However, even as this brave activist was making his case, Trump was telling Xi by phone that the United States and China would have “one of the strongest relationships.” This, despite The Donald’s campaign threat to impose stiff tariffs on Chinese imports. And in a 1990 Playboy interview, Trump expressed support for the Chinese government crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
Trump’s admiration for Chinese (and Russian) strongmen may or may not indicate a predilection to crack down at home. But it should remind us of the need to preserve and protect the democratic institutions we’ve taken for granted.
Joshua Wong, barely 20 years old, is willing to risk more for democracy than most Americans could imagine.