Hong Kong, China – A few days after his release from prison in June last year, Joshua Wong stood in front of thousands of people outside the Wanchai police headquarters, denouncing the government’s classification of anti-government protests as riots.
“No riots, only tyranny!” he cried. The crowds chanted with him.
It is Wong’s determination and fearlessness that has repeatedly put the 24-year-old in the line of fire of both the Hong Kong authorities and Beijing.
And it was this particular event that led to his current predicament.
Wong, who will be sentenced on Wednesday afternoon over the incident, has already served several sentences in relation to his role in the 2014 Umbrella pro-democracy protests. At the time, he was just 17, but he became the poster boy for the mass civil-disobedience movement, which brought parts of the city’s business district to a standstill for 79 days.
The activist is now expected to be handed another jail sentence, this time for up to three years, over the June rally during last year’s unprecedented anti-government protests, which began in opposition to a proposed extradition bill with mainland China.
Wong has been charged alongside two other activists, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam. All three, who were members of the now-disbanded political group Demosisto, pleaded guilty to organising and inciting an unauthorised assembly. At a court hearing on November 23, all three were remanded in custody prior to sentencing.
“Perhaps the authorities wish me to stay in prison one term after another,” Wong said before his most recent court appearance. “But I am persuaded that neither prison bars, nor election ban, nor any other arbitrary powers would stop us from activism.”
Joshua Wong looks back as he and fellow activist Ivan Lam arrive at Lai Chi Kok after pleading guilty to organising and inciting an unauthorised assembly near police headquarters during last year’s anti-government protests [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]Outgoing pro-democracy lawmaker Fernando Cheung, who visited Wong in detention at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre on Saturday, told Al Jazeera Wong was “in good spirits”.
According to Cheung, Wong spent three days in isolation – in a 70 sq-foot (6.5 square metres) room in a hospital – because authorities suspected he might have carried “irregular items” in his body.
“Solitary confinement was a torture for him as he was totally disconnected from the rest of the world,” Cheung said, describing the punishment as “ridiculous”.
In a written reply to Al Jazeera’s questions on the allegations, Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department said it would not comment on individual cases.
However, the CSD said: “To prevent any unauthorised articles from being introduced into correctional institutions, CSD will conduct security checks, which includes X-ray body scanning, against all newly-admitted persons in custody. If a suspected case is found, CSD will activate the security mechanism, in accordance with the law, to remove the person in custody from association for sanitisation process.”
Wong is now reportedly back in a regular cell.
“Despite such adversity,” Cheung said, “Joshua wants us to hold our heads up. He wants all of us to take good care of ourselves and each other.”
He added that the activist remains defiant, telling him: “As we continue to live, so does the movement”.
The latest trial is part of a wave of prosecutions and arrests since Beijing imposed the National Security Law, which criminalises what it terms secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces.
Beijing sees Wong and other Hong Kong activists who have lobbied for international support as “black hands” of Western powers that are trying to meddle in its internal affairs. It has also defended the sweeping legislation as crucial to restoring stability and peace to the territory following the 2019 unrest.
Critics argue the law stifles Hong Kong’s vibrant civil society and the freedoms promised to the territory when it was handed back to China from the UK in 1997.
Wong is also facing charges of participating in an unauthorised assembly in October last year and on June 4, 2020, over a vigil for the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. He was barred in July from running for a seat in the city’s legislature before the election itself was postponed a year.
It is likely that Wong’s pious family, who raised him as a Protestant Christian, fostered his sense of activism from a young age. His father, Roger Wong, was part of an anti-gay marriage initiative and is reported to have frequently taken his son to visit the city’s poor when he was a boy.
Wong has kept his religious views to himself, but it is thought that he developed strong leadership, organisational and speaking skills through involvement in his church and school, United Christian College.
Wong first captured attention when he was 17 for his role in Occupy Central in 2014 [Alex Hofford/EPA]Wong was just 13 when he led his first demonstration – protesting against plans to build a high-speed rail linking Hong Kong and mainland China. Two years later, he co-founded student activist group Scholarism. In 2012, he inspired hundreds of thousands of protesters to block the introduction of national education into the Hong Kong curriculum, something he and his friends said amounted to Beijing brainwashing.
But it was the Umbrella protests that catapulted Wong onto the global stage. Images of the bespectacled 17-year-old shouting anti-Beijing slogans on the streets of Hong Kong hit the headlines and Wong’s face made it onto the front of Time Magazine.
However, for several years after the Umbrella protests, which failed to secure any concessions from the government, Hong Kong’s democracy movement took a back seat.
Veteran democrat and former legislator Emily Lau said the Umbrella protests were key to inspiring the younger generation of democrats: “It didn’t achieve the goal of universal suffrage, and disappointed many people, including youngsters, but the desire for democracy had been stirred up.”
Wong carried on campaigning in earnest, along with his fellow Demosisto activists, calling on the world to pay attention to Beijing’s growing influence in the city.
In August 2017, he was jailed for six months for storming the government headquarters compound – the same act that had sparked the Umbrella protests three years previously.
However, it was not until last year, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam tried to introduce a controversial bill that would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial, that the Hong Kong democratic movement can be said to have truly awoken.
Wong was arrested several times – here after climbing on the Golden Bauhinia statue during a protest, June 2017 [Roman Pilipey/EPA]Wong was serving a five-week stint in jail for contempt of court as anger over the extradition bill was gathering steam. By the time he was released on June 16, full-fledged protests had kicked off. Police had used tear gas on protesters, who responded by throwing bricks and petrol bombs.
Although this time around, the protest movement was declared “leaderless”, Wong continued to take part in rallies throughout 2019 and played a leading role in persuading US politicians to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which imposes sanctions on officials suspected of human rights violations.
Coming of age, keeping the faith
“Sometimes he is a bit impatient for progress,” said Nathan Law, one of the founders of Hong Kong’s democracy movement and a former legislator, when asked about his friend and fellow activist Joshua Wong.
The two have spent the last seven years on the front lines of the fight for greater democracy in the territory.
“He pours all his energy in activism. I always say that he is a person without a second life – all his attention is spent on how to advance the causes and agendas,” 27-year-old Law told Al Jazeera from London where he sought asylum after the national security law was imposed.
Longtime friend and fellow activist Nathan Law, left, says Wong is entirely focused on political struggle [File: Vernon Yuen/.EPA]Law says Wong’s unwavering determination – and religious beliefs – will be critical in getting him through the next tough phase of his political career.
“Jailing is never easy, but I believe with his determination and strong mind, he could walk through it peacefully,” he said.