When Joshua Wong first became known in Hong Kong politics he was too young to run for office. Now that he is old enough to run, he expects he never will.
Hong Kong residents can vote when they turn 18 but can only stand for election when they are 21. By the time Wong met the latter criterion, two of his colleagues from the Demosisto party – Nathan Law and Agnes Chow – had already been kicked out of electoral politics.
Law was elected as a lawmaker in 2016 and disqualified the following year. Chow was barred from running in the by-election this March to fill his vacant seat – the government said her political stance was incompatible with the Basic Law because she supported self-determination.
For Wong, the latest ban on Chow signalled that elections had become a dead end for anyone affiliated with Demosisto. So, what now?
Wong spoke to HKFP at a café overlooking the Central Government Complex in Admiralty, where his political career began. This was where he led the 2012 protests against the national education curriculum. It was also where he joined thousands of Hongkongers during the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.
“Being barred from election is not what kills you,” he said.
He did not seem especially worried about his predicament. “What kills you is spending all your time thinking about elections, and then realising you don’t know how to do anything else.”
Wong said that once politicians enter the legislature, they tend to become detached from civil society.
“In the end, they won’t be able to escape the framework of the Legislative Council, and there will be fewer possibilities in [developing] community and social movements,” he said.
Wong was one of the student leaders involved in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and helped mobilise thousands of protesters to occupy Hong Kong’s main roads for 79 days. The media painted him as a prodigy and put him on front pages, whereas the Hong Kong government painted him as a criminal and put him in jail. Wong has lived in the spotlight ever since.
After the occupation ended, Wong recalled many scholars and political leaders said they had to “go back to communities to continue the movement,” but the promise was largely left unfulfilled.
今日早上同南區街坊參觀到屯門騎術學校參觀，見到大人小朋友👨👩👧👦都玩得好開心，萬事仔萬事妹都覺得好滿足！🐴依家正出發往流浮山食鮑魚海鮮餐🦐，希望下晝冇咁大雨，行程順利進行啦！區諾軒 Au Nok-hin 袁嘉蔚 Tiffany Yuen 黃之鋒 Joshua Wong 黃銳熺 Angus Wong
And so, for the past year or two, Wong has been attempting a transformation – albeit in the opposite direction of what others spend their lives trying to do. Political neophytes would start out as community champions and one day hope to become international icons.
Wong, now 21, is already done with being an icon. He just wants to be your friendly neighbourhood Joshua Wong.
“I believe community work is an integral part of the democracy movement,” Wong said. “It is something I must learn.”
The ‘bravest human’
As Wong found out, community work required not just different techniques, but also a different way of thinking about himself and the people he is trying to help.
“Recently I did an interview. I was [called] ‘the bravest human being on the planet,’” Wong said, grinning ear to ear.
“After I heard that, I wanted to laugh so hard… There really is a gap in how the international press understands Hong Kong’s political stars.”
The bravest human being on the planet lives with his family in South Horizons, Ap Lei Chau.
Lately, the bravest human and his colleagues organised a tour group for Southern District residents to visit a horse-riding school, and on another occasion helped them catch rats.
“When I do community work, the sense of satisfaction is actually stronger,” Wong said.
“Because district affairs are not related to Hong Kong-China relations and the distribution of power – often, we are just talking about town planning issues and the improvement of facilities.”
“For example, when residents face issues such as maintaining their 30-year-old buildings, how do we help with that? I don’t think this is something to which I will bring a significant change after working on it for two years – but at least we will be closer to residents’ lives and we will understand them better.”
Earlier this month, Wong – as a staff member of lawmaker Au Nok-hin’s district office – hosted a dinner with Democracy Party district councillors in which the traditional dish – snake soup – was served. Pro-democracy parties are sometimes criticised for hosting such dinners, as they involve using the same tactics as pro-Beijing parties in gaining support from lawmakers by offering up cheap meals.
“Young, non-traditional parties always wanted to differentiate themselves… [but] I have always believed that the key is not about the format, but the message,” Wong said.
He recalled that, in 2013, Au Nok-hin had invited law professor Benny Tai – a co-founder of “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” – to speak at a snake soup dinner. This proved that conventional means can be used for unconventional ends, Wong said.
Other than meals, Wong has also organised tours for residents to go to a nearby craft beer brewery. “It looks trendier than the snake soup dinner, but strictly speaking, the model is the same.”
Wong is also involved in community issues such as gathering opinions on whether a bus station should have an additional canopy above or an extra chair, or whether a community centre should have a water fountain. Or whether there should be new housing development projects or a new hotel in Ap Lei Chau, where it is the island with the second highest population density in the world.
“These are the things that, if we spend time on them, and if we perform better than the pro-establishment camp, residents will appreciate our work,” he said.
Demosisto, an election machine?
Demosisto used its fame and support network to help Au Nok-hin to win the March 2018 by-election. Au withdrew from the Democratic Party last year and his eventual victory followed the disqualification of Demisisto member Agnes Chow in January.
Some commentators have said that Demosisto has been turned into an “election machine,” owing to the way it wields support in the Southern District as well as how it offers support to like-minded politicians and relevant causes across Hong Kong Island.
Wong did not disagree with the assessment. He pointed out certain changes the party has gone through in recent months: at its second anniversary in May, Demosisto announced that it would transform itself from a political party into a “civil political group” that aims to lead social movements rather than run for elections.
“One question is: if I run for election, would it be more beneficial to put all my time into the legislature? Or would it be more beneficial for someone else to run, so that I can use my time and effort outside the legislature?” he said.
“I would call Demosisto a ‘machine for movements’ – give us an issue, and we will push it. Give us a person, and we will promote them. If it is an election, then we will gather votes. If it is a social movement, then we will gather support… Some say we are an advertising company. But we don’t just do advertisements.”
It is no secret that Wong expects he will be disqualified when he runs for the District Council election next year, and that a substitute candidate for him has already been lined up.
“If I can run in elections, of course I would want to run,” Wong said. “But if the democratic movement only relies on elections, then it is already dead.”