Q&A: Student activist Joshua Wong says he’s “not afraid” as court sentence looms

Almost two years after Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement protests, the spectre of jail time hangs low over Hong Kong’s most prominent student activist. Joshua Wong, now a politics and public administration undergrad at a local university, first rose to international prominence when he became the youthful face of the student-led pro-democracy protests at 17. 

In July, Joshua, with two fellow student leaders, was found guilty by a Hong Kong court of “taking part in an unlawful assembly”, for his role in an incident that was widely seen as triggering the large scale protests that lasted for months in late 2014 and faces up to two years in jail. Amnesty International sat down with him:

Joshua Wong, now a second year undergraduate at Hong Kong's Open University
Joshua Wong, now a second year undergraduate at Hong Kong's Open University

What do you feel about the upcoming sentencing?

Joshua Wong: I’ve expected to go to jail. As an activist organizing and taking part in civil disobedience, I need to show my courage and commitment. I’m not afraid of jail. I hope for the best and prepare for the worst. The worst case is having the judge send us to jail immediately.

You have said you expected last month’s conviction?

JW: The current law [Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance] really limits freedom of assembly. One should not need to get any authorization or permission from police force for assembly, so I think such a law shows it has political consideration inside [sic].

How has your family reacted to this?

JW: They have given me enough flexibility and support for my involvement and participation, but I think they might be worried. But they also know it is not a problem of activists, but a problem of the government – how they have forced students to use more progressive ways to fight for freedom and democracy.

The 2014 student-led pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong
The 2014 student-led pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong

How has having court cases hanging over you for two years affected you?

It has really affected my whole life, with even my [university] tests having to be postponed because of court trials. I still face other trials after Monday, so it’s not an easy time. In addition to university, I also need to go to the police station and meet with lawyers.

You started as an activist at a tender age of 13. What got you started?

JW: I wanted to prove to the world and prove to society that politics is not just for older people, for professionals, the elite or businessmen. The future of society belongs to young people. So why shouldn’t they start getting involved in politics and participating in it to achieve change and reform.

How do you think the political awareness of local youths has changed these two years?

JW: There is a trend of radicalization and even a fragmentation in civil society. But I think it’s good to have more young people involved in politics no matter they have a more participative or progressive stance. I think the majority consensus in the young generation is, we need to vote in a referendum and put our vote to determining our future. Don’t expect that just a closed-door meeting with the Beijing government can gain any positive result.

How much better or worse off do you think Hong Kong is in terms of freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly since 2014?

JW: Universal values in Hong Kong are moving backwards under the interference of the Chinese Communist Party. No matter whether it is political censorship, being disqualified from running in elections, or the bookseller incident. We are still waiting for the right to vote in the chief executive election.

How did you evolve from founder of a student activist group to now co-founder of a local political party?

JW: I think people have higher expectations and requirements from a founder of a political party compared to just [the founder of] an activist group. I feel that I’m an activist more than a politician, who will still carry out a direct action, massive protest, and stand with the general public and fight for future of Hong Kong.

The path for you hasn’t been easy has it? 

JW: Whether it’s having the pro-Beijing media criticize me, my home address and mobile number leaked on the internet, a letter sent to my family, not being able to enter mainland China and being blacklisted by Malaysia…the pressures I face are not easy. But compared to the pressure faced by activists in mainland China, I think it’s not really serious.

What lessons or advice would you have for young activists hoping to achieve change?

Activists around the world have different political contexts and cultural climates or conditions of civil society. The conditions are different, but we still believe in the same set of universal values: democracy, freedom and human rights. It’s not an easy time for activists to get change but we need to remind ourselves when we feel down or defeated that many people around the world commit to making change and progress in society. It’s not the time for us to give up.