The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The teenage activist wunderkind who was among the first arrested in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central

Activist Joshua Wong outside Hong Kong government offices during the Occupy Central protests on Sept. 29, 2014. (Alex Hofford/European Pressphoto Agency)

I feel bored talking about electoral reform,” the seasoned activist said.

It was spring in Hong Kong, the current turmoil of Occupy Central more than four months away. Hong Kong’s squabbles with mainland China — over autonomy, over elections, over infrastructure — were old, but there was always a new issue to take on. In 2012, for example, the activist led more than 100,000 people to victory in one political campaign — a battle over pro-Communist school curricula.

It’s not that he was tired — he just knew that there was more to life than this.

“I think that most Hongkongers are tired of these discussions, considering even someone like me, who cares about politics, is as well,” he said. “… I’m just a normal person. My life is more than politics and activism.”

But right now, activism it is. He is not the leader of the escalating protests aimed at forcing Beijing to abandon newly declared powers to weed out any candidates in upcoming Hong Kong elections. But he is among the best known, and at the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong last week, he was among the first arrested. Before his release Sunday, his detention did not go unnoticed by the international press.

Joshua Wong has been fighting mainland China for more than three years. Pro-Beijing media allege that he is linked to the U.S. government — a “political superstar” cultivated by insidious forces.

He is just 17 years old.

Wong’s rise to superstar status — assured after Occupy Central, if not already accomplished — was unlikely and swift. An infant when Hong Kong was returned to mainland China in 1997, Wong told HK magazine that he moved once a year until he was 8. Wong, a middle-class Christian, said his father often took him to visit the less fortunate.

“He told me that I should care for the abandoned in the city. They had not heard of the gospel, and were living solitary and hard lives,” he wrote, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

Wong’s first political campaign was a protest against proposed high-speed rail linking Hong Kong to mainland China in 2010.

“I realized from the protests that younger people can change those in important and powerful positions,” he said.

He would have the chance to make that change a year later when, at 15, he founded a group called “Scholarism.” When a proposal threatened to bring pro-Communist influence into Hong Kong schools, Scholarism — an extremist organization, according to state media — was at the forefront of a mass movement battling this common core. Wong said he was being monitored by Beijing, and Scholarism’s social media account was suspended. But after rallying 120,000 people, including some hunger strikers, to occupy government offices, the planned changes were scrapped. Scholarism won.

No one was more surprised than Wong. He had had his Montgomery bus boycott moment while still an adolescent.

“Five years ago, it was inconceivable that Hong Kong students would care about politics at all,” he told CNN. “But there was an awakening when the national education issue happened. We all started to care about politics.”

With Hong Kong’s electoral crisis unfolding, Scholarism did not sit silent. As CNN reported, the group floated a plan approved by almost one-third of voters in an unofficial referendum. It also staged mass sit-ins in July.

Now, it’s at the center of Occupy Central — and Wong doesn’t like the attention. He said that he is not the living manifestation of Scholarism and that he is not an icon.

I don’t like that,” he was quoted as saying in Chinese media. “If a mass movement turns into worshiping a particular person, that’s a great problem.”

But as personalities emerge from Hong Kong’s protests, news reports focused on the youth of those braving tear gas and possible rubber bullets. No one, it seems, expected the revolution to look this young — and to be so tired of Beijing.

“They haven’t seen a better model apart from the Western one,” a sociology professor speaking about Occupy Central told the Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper.

Wong, not yet 18, may turn out to be the voice most remembered from Hong Kong. Bespectacled, bony, wearing cargo pants or skinny jeans, he is already punching above his weight — and is ready to punch some more.

After he was released Sunday, he said he wanted to go home and take a shower — and then go back to the protest.

“After I go home and get cleaned up, I will be able to fight,” Wong said.

Click here to see some great Instagram shots of the protests and here for a look at some of the others in the streets.