What's It Like to Change the World Before You Leave High School?
Not many people can put "seasoned political activist" on their resume by the age of 20, but Joshua Wong has been standing down the Chinese government since he was a young teen. Wong, the subject of a new Netflix doc, Joshua Wong: Teenager vs. Superpower, founded the student activist group Scholarism at 14, which successfully protested the implementation of a nationalist education program in Hong Kong by camping out in front of the city's government headquarters.
The doc follows Wong and his peers' remarkable success as activists from 2012 to 2015.
A couple of years later, he essentially kick-started Hong Kong's Occupy movement, after being arrested at a rally and going on a 100-hour hunger strike. In 2016 he and his friends founded Demosisto, a new political party that advocates for Hong Kong's autonomy. The Chinese government has since banned "Joshua Wong" from search engines on the mainland of China.
Rule No. 1: Age Doesn't Matter If You're Focused
Early in Joshua Wong: Teenager vs. Superpower, Wong walks through a city square, handing out flyers about the dangers of the National Education motion to strangers. Under the proposed system, certain overtly nationalistic curricula would be mandatory for all Chinese students, with a heavy emphasis on patriotism and the ruling communist party. In a voiceover, he says, "The mainstream and the teachers just teach us, if you become an accountant, a doctor, or even if you become the management trainee of the investment bank, you gain a successful life and future. However, instead of asking society to define what is success, I would ask why I can't define what is valuable for myself and what is important for the society?" Why indeed, Joshua!
Wong and his peers are able to earn the respect of activists decades their senior because they can state their views and values as thesis statements and hypotheses. Even though Scholarism meeting attendees would sometimes express surprise at Wong's youth, fellow activist Agnes Chow says it was easy to see Wong as a leader because, "He encouraged lots of normal, ordinary Hong Kong people to care about Hong Kong."
Rule No. 2: Never Underestimate a Group of Well-Informed Teens
Four days before National Education was set to go into effect in Hong Kong, Scholarism, led by Wong, arrived outside Hong Kong's government headquarters and announced they would not leave until National Education had been withdrawn. For the first three days, only about 20 people joined Wong and his cohort, sleeping on concrete in tents as it rained. But on the fourth morning, thousands more students arrived.
"The future of Hong Kong should be decided by Hong Kongers instead of the Chinese government." —Joshua Wong
At first, C.Y. Leung, the chief executive of Hong Kong, refused to hear the protesters' demands for a full withdrawal. So the students stayed until their numbers had grown to 120,000, at which point CY Leung gave a statement in which he announced National Education would no longer be mandatory in Hong Kong schools.
Rule No. 3: Sometimes You'll Have to Make a New Strategy
And, frankly, a lot of people might not like it. In September 2014, with the planned start of Hong Kong's Occupy Central movement approaching—an action aimed at securing the governmental autonomy China had promised Hong Kong—Wong led a student strike assembly that culminated in an attempt to take over the square outside the government headquarters again. He was surrounded by cops and detained for 46 hours, causing such a stir among the crowd that the Occupy leaders had to launch the movement early.
"Our parents say that joining this student strike will ruin our future. But what sort of future will we have under the current political system?" —Wong
In the film, one historian says Scholarism had "hijacked" the movement. Wong tells the filmmakers, "The problem is Benny Tai [leader of Occupy Central] planned the Occupy action to be a formal, organized activity, just like holding a concert or a ceremony. But the participants of a social movement are quite organic. You can't force them to directly follow your rules and regulations. A social movement is a social movement."
Rule No. 4: …And Sometimes, Those Strategies Might Not Work
As a result of the students taking a larger role in the protests, Occupy Central essentially dissolved into what became known as the Umbrella Revolution. Participants carried umbrellas instead of weapons to protect themselves from tear gas shot into the crowds by riot police. The movement lasted from late September to December 2014, with people camping on streets and in public squares until the city sent police in to disperse them. No political change occurred. Was the lack of organization responsible for this? Or would the Occupy movement have failed on its own?
It was a crushing defeat. But in the aftermath Wong and his allies continued to dominate the narrative of Hong Kong's activist community. Perhaps Scholarism had taken the limelight over Occupy Central, a more calculated movement, but the young students' voices had been missing from the greater conversation. If Scholarism and Occupy Central had outlived their purpose, then maybe this was just a sign that they needed to start something new entirely.
Rule No. 5: You May Need to Pass the Spotlight
It's not that Wong doesn't appreciate fame, it's just that he only seems to acknowledge it for its greater utility. In 2016, after disbanding Scholarism and founding the political party Demosisto, Wong and his peers put forward Nathan Law, a university student a couple of years their senior (and therefore old enough to run for office), as a candidate for the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. He won in his district, the youngest person to ever become a Hong Kong legislator.
Real leaders, Wong's behavior suggests, know when to step back to recognize the leadership potential in their colleagues and understand how doing so contributes to group camaraderie.
Joshua Wong: Teenager vs. Superpower is now streaming on Netflix.