Rantt Interview: Hong Kong Activist Joshua Wong Calls For US Support

In an interview with Rantt, Joshua Wong discusses the pro-democracy movement, debunks China's narratives, and calls on the US to support democratization.
Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaks to protesters near the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Monday, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaks to protesters near the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Monday, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Updated August 30, 2019: Joshua Wong has been arrested by Hong Kong police and charged with unlawfully organizing a June 21 protest. Other pro-democracy activists were among the arrests. Wong has since been released on bail and spoke out about the arrest on Twitter.

What’s going on in Hong Kong?

Protests have been ongoing since June after the Hong Kong government introduced an extradition bill that critics argued would allow China to, in effect, legally kidnap Hong Kong activists and Chinese dissidents living there. The initial protests prompted Hong Kong’s Chief executive, Carrie Lam, to suspend the legislation indefinitely. However, she has refrained from withdrawing it entirely, prompting fears that the government will reintroduce it at a later time.

This is only one of the reasons protests remain. Activists are also calling for an independent inquiry into police brutality, which has come down hard on demonstrations which, aside from individual flare-ups, have been largely peaceful. They have used tear gas and rubber bullets against the unarmed protestors, acts which many in the international community have deemed excessive.

Demonstrators are also dissatisfied with what they see as a political system and electoral process that is not entirely democratic and free. Protestors believe China’s authoritarian government is not respecting the “one country, two systems” agreement which was constructed when China gained sovereignty over Hong Kong from the UK in 1997. Ms. Lam, in particular, has drawn ire. She has fostered stronger ties with the government in Beijing and has previously supported allowing the Chinese government to effectively handpick candidates for Hong Kong leadership.

This is the latest in a periodic series of protests in Hong Kong. In 2014, the so-called Umbrella Movement lasted three months, and the jailing of some of its leaders in part fueled the start of the present protests. The recent demonstrations, however, are perhaps the biggest in terms of the number of people on the streets, and have garnered much more scrutiny internationally.

Who is Joshua Wong?

22-year-old Joshua Wong is a student activist and the secretary-general of the pro-democracy organization Demosisto. He has been an activist since he was a teenager and was jailed for his role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and is one of the leading organizers of the current protests. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, and was named one of Fortune magazine’s ten “World’s Greatest Leaders” in 2015, as well as Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Teens” in 2014.

We spoke to him about the protests in Hong Kong.

[Editor’s Note: The interview was edited and annotated for clarity]

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JOSSIF: Can you give us the latest on the Hong Kong protests and your efforts in particular? Just give a quick recap to our readers: On Sunday, there was a peaceful protest in Hong Kong of about 1.7 million people. Afterward, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lamb said she would like to set up a platform for dialogue with citizens, which activists are largely dismissed as a trap.

She’s also promised further inquiry into incidents of police brutality. But so far she’s refused to conduct an independent third party inquiry which activists have been calling for. Joshua, do I have that about right, am I missing anything? And what’s the next step for you and your organization?

JOSHUA: So, the dialogue platform with Carrie Lam might not be useful, because she is not the decision-maker. So, this kind of PR show might be just a trap. I hope people still realize that with our solidarity and our cause of democracy and free elections, we need to continue our fight. Just now, we prepare for our class boycott on early September and the general strike.

JOSSIF: What does victory look like for you and your fellow organizers after nearly three months of protesting against the actions by the Hong Kong government and the mainland Chinese government?

JOSHUA: Free elections is the only way out, and that’s the reason we continue our strike, and that’s the ultimate goal. We need to elect our own government.

JOSSIF: It seems like these protests seem to be led and driven by millennials. Most of the organizers, including yourself, are in their early to mid-20s. Why is it that Hong Kong’s youth are so eager to take to the streets?

JOSHUA: It’s not only millennials. From the generation of baby boomers to those millennials who already joined the fight, just imagine 2 out 7 million population joining the fight.

[Editor’s Note: Hong Kong’s population is about 7.4 million. About 2 million people, or 28 percent of the population, demonstrated during a rally in June.]

JOSHUA: Of course, with Hong Kong’s really low birth rate, the elderly and middle-class portion want to also join this rally and march.

[Editor’s Note: at 1.1 births per woman, Hong Kong has among the lowest birth rates in the world, which poses a looming socioeconomic threat]

JOSSIF: Okay, so there are more baby boomers. It’s not just a millennial-driven protest?

JOSHUA: Yes, it’s cross-generational.

JOSSIF: You’ve been involved in activism since at least 2010. You’ve also taken part in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. How is the current protest movement different from those past pro-democracy efforts?

JOSHUA: In 2014, tear gas was fired, and 700 protestors were arrested. We saw a series of police brutality…[unclear]

So for this movement, we have 2 million instead of 200,000 people in the Umbrella Movement. So, more and more people join our fight. Now we also face the threat of the troops that is moving to the border.

JOSSIF: Yea, we’ve seen images of this mobilization in the nearby city of Shenzhen. Are you worried about a potential escalation and crackdown by the mainland Chinese government?

JOSHUA: We can’t expect the president to react rationally, and that’s the reason we are worried about it.

JOSSIF: Besides the images that we’ve seen here in the US, is there any other evidence that the Beijing government is looking to enact more forceful measures against these protests?

JOSHUA: A lot of threatening problems already despite that, including the terminal blindness of two activists who joined peacefully because [unclear] were fired into their eyes.

So, I expect there might be a crackdown on Hong Kong protests soon, but we will still continue to put pressure on Beijing.

JOSSIF: So – speaking of putting pressure on Beijing – you likened the struggle for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong in the face of the government in Beijing as “the Battle of David versus Goliath.”

And you have been no stranger to the hardship of going against the mainland Chinese government. You’ve been jailed and detained several times over the years for your efforts. What keeps you motivated and hopeful when organizing against such a formidable foe as Xi Jinping’s government?

JOSHUA: A sense of belonging to be a Hong Konger. Hong Kong is a place I was born in, I live, and I love, and we deserve democracy. And that’s the reason for us to continue our fight.

JOSSIF: I want to get into some more details about the protest movements. Last week, there were multiple reports of increased violence from protesters. Notably, there were several instances where groups of protesters seem to be injuring individuals they suspected to be undercover police officers. The Beijing government has used these instances the label the princess as riots. Do you condone these acts and other acts of violence by protesters and how does your leadership make sure that protests remain peaceful in the face of multiple instances of police brutality?

JOSHUA: So, in Hong Kong, we told leaders that, if no police storm into the protests, no one will be arrested, no clashes will happen, and no violence will exist.
What I mean is, last Sunday protests ended peacefully without any clashes of violence. It’s not because of the behavior of activists, it’s because police didn’t come into the crowd of protestors, which means that whether violence exists or not depends on the actions of police.

JOSSIF: So are you saying that it’s the police that initiate any kind of violent flare-ups that happen?

JOSHUA: Yes.

JOSSIF: Okay, but the Beijing government, particularly in the wake of protesters seizing the airport, have labeled these protests as riots due to the violent efforts. Do you see protestors that are choosing to take more violent means or are they simply reacting to violent actions by police officers?

JOSHUA: They blame us as riots since the middle of June, so it’s not surprising that they keep blaming us.

JOSSIF: So this is completely unfounded?

JOSHUA: Yes, that’s a misleading narrative, but it’s not surprising at all.

JOSSIF: So building upon these different narratives that we’re seeing, another narrative that actually seems a common theme throughout many of the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong is this notion of promotion of democracy versus stability. There’s a common criticism from the Beijing government in particular that these pro-democracy demonstrations endanger stability and order in Hong Kong, and in China more broadly. Carrie Lam has also alluded to this when she accused protesters of damaging the Hong Kong economy last week. How do you respond to this notion that efforts to guarantee more human rights are contrary to promotion of stability and prosperity in Hong Kong?

JOSHUA: Well, we are trying to safeguard Hong Kong economic freedom. And that’s the reason why businessmen tycoons from the General Chamber of Commerce also issued a statement for escalations to be viewed by an investigation commission, which means that – no matter, grassroots or tycoons – we realize that to retain and uphold economic freedom of Hong Kong is a must.

JOSSIF: Why is it so important to uphold both political and economic freedom in Hong Kong for these protesters and is that is that kind of the thinking of protesters or is it is it more just democracy and free elections?

JOSHUA: Free elections is the way to safeguard Hong Kong political and economic freedom.

JOSSIF: Now I want to turn to another narrative that we’ve seen by Chinese officials and state-owned broadcasters. They’ve alluded to this narrative that Hong Kong’s protests are influenced by the US. They’ve used footage of you meeting with US diplomat Judy Eadeh and other footage of Hong Kong protesters waving American flags and singing the National Anthem as proof that the U.S. is influencing or even directly pulling the strings of your movement. How do you respond to these allegations?

JOSHUA: Meeting with diplomats is totally common, it’s not coordination or sinister. Also, I hope people understand that when Hong Kong is on the brink of pressure, it’s not surprising and it’s a must for world leaders and diplomats around the world pay attention to the protests at Hong Kong.

I also urge the US government to stop the export license of rubber bullets and tear gas, those crowd control weapons should not be exported to Hong Kong riot police. And they should pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act to support Hong Kong democratization.

[Editor’s Note: The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act is a bipartisan bill that reaffirms U.S. support for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong and requires the Secretary of State to, among other things, make an annual certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy, report on any actions suppressing basic freedoms, and freeze the U.S.-based assets of any persons engaged in such actions.]

JOSSIF: Yes, and thank you for mentioning that. Aside from the stopping of exports and passing the Human Rights Act for Hong Kong, how can the US – and I also want to shift it more to Americans as individuals in particular – how can they assist pro-democracy efforts and how can they assist your movement?

JOSHUA: Stop the export of weapons to Hong Kong riot police and to pass the policy act is the way out.

JOSSIF: Okay, and my last question for you, it’s kind of focusing in on President Trump and his most recent comments. He seems to be giving tacit approval to President Xi Jinping’s handling of the protests in Hong Kong. How do you feel about Trump’s rhetoric in general and are his comments and his actions helping or hurting your cause?

JOSHUA: Hong Kong protests must be included in the agenda of the negotiations between the US and Hong Kong. When the Asian financial hub now is under the threat of having the past happen, by troops rumbling into the downtown of Hong Kong. I urge, and I also agree, that U.S. government must pay attention to it.

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Interview // Authoritarianism / China / Democracy / Hong Kong / Interview