The Fall of Joshua Wong ?

Joshua Wong on the Time Magazine cover. (courtesy: TIME Magazine)

Sept. 28 marked the second anniversary of the Umbrella Movement, a fading page of the history of Hong Kong one may either find remarkable or irritating.

A number of protesters in the Umbrella Movement have lost faith in some of those who helped turn the student strike into a 79-day social movement. This includes Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), a young political activist who made it all the way to a Time magazine cover. Some protesters have accused Wong of taking all the credit for starting the movement and blame him for being unable to put together useful tactics against the administration.

I remember the first time I met Wong, well before he became a public face in local and international media.

I was at a forum on the national education controversy in 2011 attended by Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君), Hong Kong’s outspoken former bishop, for an assignment as a journalist. Wong, the then-convenor of Scholarism (the student group has since disbanded), was there as a guest speaker. National education was yet to be a heated topic, and the reporters were only assigned to the event to gather comments from Cardinal Zen about the upcoming 2012 Chief Executive elections. Although the audience was very much impressed by the then 15-year-old Wong’s speech, he nevertheless was only a talented teenager to them. Little did they know that this teenager would later play an important role in the political history of Hong Kong.

After the forum ended and reporters flocked to interview Cardinal Zen, Wong just stood there quietly. I went up and asked a few questions, though I cannot quite recall what they were. All I remember was that the quotes were not used and that the CE elections stories were more valuable.

But Wong continued to impress a larger crowd as he went on to lead the rally of 100,000 people against the government’s decision to implement its national education curriculum in secondary schools. The protests eventually pressured the government to withdraw its decision.

He was also among those who called for a student strike after a National People’s Congress decision regarding the 2017 Chief Executive Election was made public on Aug. 31, 2014. The decision reaffirmed that Hongkongers would not have true universal suffrage as demanded over the years. The student strike eventually turned into the 79-day Umbrella Movement.

Just as it seemed like Wong and his fellow student activists had reached a milestone, this is also where he fell.

As tension built up between protesters and the administration, particularly the police force, protesters began to question whether inaction was the wisest strategy when police brutality had become frequent. They were discouraged as days went by and some began to seek alternative directions, as more radical groups, such as the Student Front, emerged.

Over the course of the Umbrella Movement, the efforts and trust in the student leaders were falling apart as Hongkongers, especially those who had firsthand experience at the occupied site, gave second thought to what was the right way to fight for freedom and what the true meaning of civil disobedience is.

Undeniably, the Umbrella Movement still holds a special place in Hongkongers’ hearts even it is not often mentioned anymore. For some, it was the biggest bargaining chip to demand a higher degree of freedom and true democracy — a luxury in Hong Kong, but fundamental in many other regions.

Yet it failed.

Some protesters who spent countless nights at the site feel the movement was a shame and should not be commemorated. It shocked me as, after two years, I still sometimes see fleets of people carrying yellow umbrellas on the streets while chanting, “I want true universal suffrage.” Some chose to forget, but some are unable to.

It makes sense that the Umbrella Movement, one of the most influential social movements in Hong Kong history, would be a stepping-stone for activists to start a political career.

Considering Wong’s age, he has experienced numerous political episodes in the past, yet he has to wait another four years to run in Legislative Council elections. Wong, who will turn 20 this October, earlier failed his legal bid to lower the age limit, currently 21, for LegCo elections contenders. While active on the political stage, he had to retreat and stand behind fellow student leader Nathan Law (羅冠聰), 23, who won a seat in LegCo elections earlier this month.

While Hong Kong’s future democratic challenge remains worrying, I recall a conversation with a friend during a first anniversary event for the Umbrella Movement. We were next to the “Lennon Wall,” where hundreds of thousands spent numerous sleepless nights during the movement. The smell of tear gas and pepper spray still lingered. People might have been disappointed by the result of the movement, which failed to change the government’s position — or the Central Government’s decision, to be precise.

My friend felt otherwise. “In 20 years, these young people will be in a better position to represent Hongkongers. Why should we be worried?”

His anticipation was reflected in the new LegCo term. Besides Demosistō’s Law, localists Yau Wai-ching (游蕙禎) and Sixtus Leung (梁頌恆) from Youngspiration, regardless their political stance, are the new blood in the legislature for the next four years along with the newly elected lawmakers. Though change might be difficult to identify at this stage, their performance in the chamber should not be neglected. It may be another four years before Wong can run in the LegCo elections, but his accumulating political experience outside the chamber will be equally valuable for a political career.

This article is originally published on The News Lens (International Edition) on Sep 29th, 2016.