HONG KONG — Joshua Wong, a young activist who rose to prominence as the face of 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, was released from jail Monday amid a revival of the movement he helped foster, and he immediately called for the territory’s leader to resign.
Upon his release, Wong, 22, rushed to a park around government buildings, where a group of protesters remained after a massive march Sunday to call for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign. Organizers said almost 2 million people showed up, despite a compromise offered by Lam over a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China — the latest sign that anger over Beijing’s tightening grip here will not be quelled.
Wearing the same clothes he was dressed in when he was jailed two months ago, Wong rallied a relatively small group of protesters camped outside government buildings, including the office of the chief executive.
“I missed those critical moments and missed those actions [over the past week],” Wong said in an interview, as protesters chanted just a few feet away. “I couldn’t join the fight with them because I was in prison, so I wanted to show my support and thank [them for their] commitment.”
Demonstrators on Monday morning began clearing out from main city arteries that they had occupied overnight, having stayed into the late hours of the day after the huge crowds marching around the city had dispersed. Unlike last week, when police and protesters fought violent street battles, the demonstrators were calm and orderly and yielded the streets back to police after negotiations.
The protesters took to the streets to demand that Lam step down and fully withdraw a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China. Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997 under the promise that it could keep its own legal and immigration systems, as well as other key freedoms, for 50 years as a semiautonomous territory. Critics say the bill, if enacted, would mark an end of a key “firewall” that has separated Hong Kong’s highly regarded legal system from the mainland, and they see it as the most blatant indication of encroaching Beijing rule over their city.
There were no reports of scuffles Sunday. Even at the height of the demonstration — when thousands had taken over Harcourt Road, a major Hong Kong thoroughfare around government buildings that was not closed off for the march — protesters were calm and organized, collectively parting to make way for buses and ambulances. The police presence remained light.
On Wednesday, riot police shot rubber bullets and tear gas at an overwhelmingly young group of demonstrators who blocked roads to the Legislative Council building that houses Hong Kong’s lawmaking body, an attempt to postpone a meeting on the extradition bill.
The protesters have partially succeeded in their aims and have forced Lam to postpone plans for the extradition bill indefinitely. Late Sunday, she apologized for her government’s handling of the legislation.
Yet the crowds that gathered over the past week had no obvious leader, unlike the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when Wong took the stage nightly during a 79-day sit-in around central Hong Kong. Demonstrators then were asking for universal suffrage and rejecting proposals to give Beijing a huge say over who becomes chief executive. Wong, just 17 at the time, quickly became the face of the movement.
He and other leaders have been imprisoned by Hong Kong authorities on a litany of charges. On May 16, Wong was sentenced to two months in prison, returning to jail for the third time after losing an appeal against a prison term for contempt of court.
They also failed to achieve universal suffrage for Hong Kong, quelling the pro-democracy, anti-Beijing movement until its revival over the past week.
Protesters this week have said that their acts of civil disobedience have been leaderless to be more effective and inclusive — and to avoid the persecution that the Umbrella Movement leaders faced.
“Even if they arrest anyone, they’ll have more people who show their support,” Wong said. “When everyone becomes a leader, they can’t target anyone.”
Wong said he believes that the rallies and demonstrations will continue. He said his group, Demosisto, will cooperate with the Civil Human Rights Front, the organization that helped plan and coordinate the rallies. The demonstrations have invigorated Hong Kongers at a time of deep and growing fear over the role Beijing plays in their territory and its control over Hong Kong authorities, Wong said.
“Within the past five years, [Hong Kong authorities have] locked us up in prison, prosecuted activists, and even the ones who have fought for freedom have faced seven years [in] jail,” he said. “All the things they’ve done in the past five years, they need to pay the price from now on.”