HONG KONG — Two very different men made D.C. debuts on Thursday.
One — Chinese President Xi Jinping — will get a state dinner and a 21-gun salute. The other — Joshua Wong — was in town to talk about Hong Kong’s fight for self-determination.
The presence of these divergent figures gets at the heart of America’s China challenge: engaging the country’s central government as it races toward superpower status, without abandoning those, like Wong, who feel trampled underfoot.
Wong, 18, is the teen activist whose arrest this time last year touched off Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and the months-long occupation that paralyzed parts of the city and embarrassed Beijing. He was honored Thursday at the 75th anniversary celebration of Freedom House, a pro-democracy watchdog group.
A capable organizer with a quick wit, he became the public face of protests that made headlines around the world but ultimately failed to win concessions from the central government. “We didn’t win,” Wong said in an interview in Hong Kong last week.
But 12 months after the demonstrations got underway, he is more determined than ever to continue the fight and spends most of his waking, non-studying hours thinking about how to build a sustainable social movement. Getting 200,000 people on the street did not get Hong Kong closer to genuine universal suffrage — what will?
“The Umbrella Movement did not achieve its goal — political reform — but we still need to use our influence to let the world know that we have clear goals: to fight for democracy and achieve autonomy,” he said.
“We don’t have a lot of expectations of the U.S. government . . . but it’s not necessary to put a lot of hope in the government or to expect that Obama will change his mind and ask Xi Jinping, ‘Why don’t you adopt universal suffrage in Hong Kong?’ I put more hope in civil society.”
Finding ways to make Hong Kong heard is something of his specialty.
Wong was born in 1996 — the year before the former British colony was handed back to China with a promise it would be granted a “high degree of autonomy.” Under a compromise called “one country, two systems,” the Chinese special administrative region would retain its way of life and certain freedoms for 50 years but would be beholden, on matters of security, to Beijing.
Raised as a Protestant by professional, non-activist parents, Wong by the age of 15 felt that the “two systems” promise was under threat, particularly by efforts to mandate “moral and national education” in Hong Kong schools. In a series of YouTube videos, Facebook posts and speeches, Wong bashed the plan as Communist Party “brainwashing” — a rallying cry that helped get tens of thousands of people on the streets and ultimately forced the government to change course.
In a 2012 interview with the South China Morning Post, Wong paraphrased Japanese writer Haruki Murakami to explain why he took on such a powerful foe: “If there is a hard, high wall and an egg breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg,” he said.
He joined protests last year against a Beijing-issued white paper outlining the central government’s restrictive vision for Hong Kong’s future. On the night of Sept. 26, he was arrested trying to climb into a square next to government headquarters. Pictures from the scene showed Wong, 17 and skinny as anything, being dragged away by uniformed officers, his glasses knocked aside, his eyes clenched shut.
The photographs were a turning point: On the night of Sept. 28, tens of thousands took to the street, only to be blasted with tear gas by Hong Kong police. Protesters used umbrellas to block the spray; the Umbrella Movement was born.
The occupation that followed captured the world’s imagination. Before they seized control of the heart of one of Asia’s financial centers, Hong Kong kids were too often dismissed as bookish and apathetic. But there they were, building roadblocks, yelling slogans and sleeping on the pavement, clutching their backpacks like teddy bears, their umbrellas at the ready.
Wong and several leaders from the Hong Kong Federation of Students organized rallies that were part campfire singalong, part consciousness-raising. Night after night, he stepped onto the podium — in this case, a stepladder — and, eyes closed, phone in hand, delivered rousing speeches in quick-fire Cantonese.
Soon, he couldn’t walk down the street without being mobbed by fans. Wong seemed to bristle at the attention, telling reporters that if a movement rests on the shoulders of one person, it is doomed to fail.
The fame made him a target for the city's pro-Beijing newspapers, which have run “exposés” alleging links to the CIA. Wong laughs it off: “My girlfriend jokes that her image of a spy is Tom Cruise, not me,” he said. “She says, ‘If you are a spy, why are you so thin?’ ”
Chinese state media often invoke the threat of “hostile foreign forces” bent on destabilizing China — and the Umbrella Movement was no different. “The U.S. purports to be promoting the ‘universal values’ of ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights,’ ” warned the People’s Daily. “But in reality the U.S. is simply defending its own strategic interests and undermining governments it considers to be ‘insubordinate.’ ”
Speaking in Washington will do little to stem criticism from state media, or indeed, from the pro-Beijing types who occasionally assault, harass or accost Wong on the street. But having had a year to think about the protest, he sees engaging internationally as a strategic necessity.
He said trying to secure concessions from the Communist Party is doomed to fail, for now. “Even if I had the chance to meet with Xi next month, it would not be useful,” Wong said. “If I said, ‘We want universal suffrage,’ he would still ignore it because Hong Kong people don’t have enough bargaining power.”
Strengthening the city’s hand means building civil society and institutions from the ground up — not easy, Wong admits. But by the time Hong Kong is supposed to merge fully with the mainland, in 2047, China may have changed. Wong will be 51 that year, and, he hopes, still fighting.
“Time is on our side,” he said.