An Ominous Milestone in Hong Kong’s Democratic Descent

Of the issues Joshua Wong has faced during his time as an activist—harassment by Chinese state media, travel bans, and disqualification from local politics—the loquacious dissident rarely suffers a loss for words. But that was the problem nearly a decade ago, when he gave one of his first broadcast interviews. Wong, then just a teenager, was organizing and leading demonstrations that eventually made Hong Kong’s government withdraw controversial education reforms, but during that questioning, he “stuttered a lot,” he later recalled, admitting that he needed more than a dozen tries to do the take. Experiences like those helped prepare Wong, who a few years later would achieve international fame as a prodemocracy champion standing up to Beijing’s growing suppression.

Now those early successes are being undone, and hope is dwindling that Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement can withstand Beijing’s incursions on the city. Eight years on from Wong’s first unlikely victory, which saw the authorities back down from plans to instill Chinese patriotism through schooling, the changes he helped stave off are beginning to take hold. And today he was sentenced to more than a year in jail on charges stemming from last year’s demonstrations. Two other activists, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, were sentenced along with him, though to less time—all had earlier pleaded guilty—and Wong faces still more charges. Their prison terms will be trumpeted by Beijing, which has fixated on Wong and his compatriots for years. The sentences, and the slate of other allegations that the trio and other activists face, are an effort to silence the icons of Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement while Beijing continues its march across the city unrestrained.

With a vague and broadly worded national-security law in place, large-scale protests against the sentences, or against any other actions by the government here or in Beijing, seems for now unlikely. After a mass resignation by prodemocracy lawmakers last month, the formal opposition camp has all but disappeared and left former legislators uncertain about how to proceed. Numerous lawmakers are facing charges themselves. While people like Wong and Chow have made headlines, hundreds of others risk months or years behind bars, including many of the anonymous foot soldiers who fueled the biggest rebuke of Beijing’s rule this territory has seen.

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Dozens of supporters and journalists gathered today at a Hong Kong court, now a familiar routine as the thousands of people arrested during last year’s demonstrations make their way through a judicial system that is itself under tremendous pressure from Beijing. Wong, Chow, and Lam were charged for their roles in an unauthorized protest outside Hong Kong’s police headquarters in June of last year. Magistrate Lily Wong Sze-lai, citing “threat to the personal safety of those present” and the “serious disruption of traffic” caused by the demonstration, sentenced Wong to 13.5 months in jail. Chow and Lam were sentenced to 10 and seven months, respectively. (Chow was arrested on suspicion of violating the national-security law in August, though she has not been charged.)

Chow, who, unlike Lam and Wong, has never been imprisoned, burst into tears in court. Friends who visited her in the detention facility where she was being held awaiting today’s verdict said she was having difficulty adjusting to being incarcerated. “I understand that I will probably be sentenced to prison on Wednesday, so my morale has been low, and I’ve been very worried,” she was quoted as saying in a Facebook post. The sentencing came a day before her 24th birthday.

Lam has a comparatively lower profile outside Hong Kong, but quietly played a foundational role in the city’s activism. He met Wong while in school and in Lam, Wong found a friend with a similar taste for politics. In his book, Unfree Speech, Wong recounts tagging along with Lam to vigils and demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2011. That May, Lam and Wong founded Scholarism, their student demonstration group. They pinned on the ism to reflect a new way of thinking, Wong wrote, but also, in an effort reflective of their youthful age, to “give the name more gravitas.”

Wong’s profile dwarfs those of Chow and Lam, and indeed any other activist fighting for Hong Kong’s democracy. Driven in part by his parents’ Christian volunteer work and his own faith, he began questioning those in power at a young age, blogging about the goings-on at his secondary school, before starting a Facebook page to criticize the school’s cafeteria food, which landed him in trouble with school officials. Au Nok-hin, a former prodemocracy lawmaker who is friends with all three of the activists, recalled Wong peppering him with questions about local politics and spending time at his district-council office in 2012, reading through campaign materials and books. “He is extraordinarily outgoing,” Au told me of Wong, whom he called the finest and most relentless political campaigner in Hong Kong.

Policemen try to get a man to let go of a fence guarded by pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on October 3, 2014. . (PHILIPPE LOPEZ / AFP / Getty)
This knack for organizing, bolstered by a talent for holding audiences rapt with his speeches, became apparent in 2012. Wong rallied students and was joined by parents and teachers decrying the authorities’ efforts to mandate national education as an attempt at brainwashing and Chinese indoctrination. Students tailed the education secretary, pestering him with props drawn from cartoons and movies. The protest culminated with a huge multiday demonstration outside government offices. The proposed curriculum was shelved.

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Students tend to be more “principle-oriented rather than being so-called pragmatic,” Sing Ming, an associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology whose research focuses on the city’s democratization efforts, told me. The desire for increased freedoms coupled with a belief that the government has largely failed to provide means for social mobility is a potent combination. “It is just a matter of time for the youth to translate their values and anger into actions,” he said, “depending on the political opportunities.”

The political opportunity arrived in 2014. Prompted by a proposal from Beijing restricting who could lead the city, thousands occupied Hong Kong’s main thoroughfares for weeks, calling for the universal suffrage promised in its mini-constitution to be implemented. While the Umbrella Movement contained numerous factions, Wong, popping in and out of a blue tent that served as his temporary home to brief an ever-growing number of reporters, became the face of the protests. A Time cover trumpeting Wong helped cement his arrival on the stage of global activism.

Those protests fizzled after 79 days, however, and activism in the city waned as demonstrators were left demoralized and emotionally drained from the events. Scholarism was disbanded. Members formed a new political group, Demosisto, that won a seat in the city’s legislature in 2016, but the winning candidate, Nathan Law, was barred from serving in office. Chow was banned from running for office at all. (The decision was later overturned by the courts.) Though the Umbrella Movement failed to deliver universal suffrage, it succeeded in influencing and training a new crop of politically motivated residents, laying the groundwork for protests that came roaring back last year.

The sentence handed down on Wednesday is Wong’s longest, and it highlights the authorities’ obsessive focus on him: Compared with his 2012 and 2014 efforts, Wong’s role in last year’s protests was limited, and he was even a relatively minor player at the police-headquarters demonstration (which I attended).

Last summer, when protests against a proposed extradition bill took hold, Wong was in jail, serving a two-month sentence stemming from the 2014 protests. He emerged to join a movement that was far different from the one he had led five years earlier. The protests jettisoned occupations for more free-flowing protests, in order to thwart aggressive police tactics. And, most notably, the movement went to great lengths to remain leaderless, in part to avoid the divisions that plagued the Umbrella Movement. Reporters who erroneously described Wong as a protest leader often found themselves the target of a swarm of angry social-media users. Some protesters were hostile to Wong, citing the failure of his preferred tactics in 2014 to bring about wide-scale change and his ability to garner so much of the spotlight.

If he was bothered by his diminished position, Wong did not show it. Instead he accepted a new role with the same obsessive approach he’d taken to years of manning street-side political booths in Hong Kong. A dissident diplomat, he traveled to Taiwan, Germany, and the United States, where he testified at a congressional hearing. At each stop, the media coverage his trips generated was matched by angry condemnations from Beijing. Wong’s globetrotting, however, was not to last. Numerous arrests left him unable to travel.

With avenues for dissent vanishing, it looks likely that resistance to the Hong Kong government and its mainland Chinese backers will morph, growing subdued within the territory but more vocal among the city’s far-reaching and influential diaspora. Lian Yi-zheng, the former chief editor of The Hong Kong Economic Journal and a political commentator, told me that everyday people who supported protests, rallies, and the activists who organized them have been spooked by Beijing’s clampdown. “The traditional movement has become more and more hemmed in,” he said. “Formerly it was very well embedded in society, but now it is more and more being driven out.”

Law, who fled the city this year, has become a de facto spokesperson for the movement, lobbying leaders across Europe to stand up more boldly to China. Other organizations have sprouted up in the U.S. and elsewhere. Lian said the process would be slow and not without obstacles, particularly as governments hosting dissidents would be wary of offending Beijing, but noted that globally, “there has been a sea change in the opinion of China and its ruling party.”

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Challenged by numerous protests over the past decade, the Hong Kong government’s response has been to see fault everywhere, and with nearly everyone, except itself and its policies. Poor messaging, not the contents of a deeply unpopular extradition bill, was to blame for last year’s demonstrations. During the Umbrella Movement, and again five years later, the authorities peddled baseless claims of clandestine foreign forces fomenting demonstrations, beguiling unwitting residents into turning their anger toward their government.

Many of these grievances stem from the city’s education system, the favorite target of pro-Beijing politicians and Hong Kong’s government. Maligned as insufficiently nationalistic, the calculus for supporters in favor of overhauling it is simple: more Chinese patriotism in schools, resulting in fewer Wongs, Chows, or Lams, and thus fewer protests on the streets.

So it was hardly a surprise when, late last month, the city’s education secretary outlined a plan to begin completely retooling classes to include more national education focused on the positives of China. The first reforms will target liberal studies, a compulsory course introduced just over a decade ago that champions critical thinking and a focus on social issues. The announcement came as Wong, Chow, and Lam sat in jail awaiting sentencing, the education changes they began their activist careers fighting, and were able to temporarily fend off, starting to move forward unabated.

Prodemocracy protesters in 2014 remove signs placed during demonstrations but leave intact the notice "We are dreamers." (PEDRO UGARTE / AFP / GETTY)

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