Since June, hundreds of thousands of protesters have marched through the streets of Hong Kong in defiance of an extradition bill, now suspended, that allowed for sending criminal suspects to mainland China for trial.
Student activist and politician Joshua Wong, secretary-general of Hong Kong's pro-democracy Demosistō Party who was jailed for his role in the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, spoke by phone Aug. 17 with VOA reporter Si Yang about a possible crackdown on the weekslong protests, the younger generation's identity crisis and Hong Kong's future.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
VOA: Why do young people in Hong Kong have negative views of China? You mentioned in one of your tweets that it's "more than the extradition bill, more than (Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie) Lam. It's about this generation's future after the year 2047." Why do you fear for your future after 2047?
Wong: We are afraid of Beijing. We have activists (who have) been jailed in Xinjiang. Lawmakers are driven, booksellers are kidnapped and foreign correspondents are expelled from Hong Kong. That's why people that have already been experiencing 'one country and two systems' may joke,one country and one-and-a-half system.' There are more people (who) are aware of the crackdown on human rights and will continue to fight.
VOA: Beijing now has paramilitary forces gathered at Hong Kong's border. Are you and your fellow activists afraid of a crackdown?
Wong: Sending troops to Hong Kong is not a solution to silence the voices of the protesters. It's not appropriate at all. Now is the time for people to be aware that perhaps another Tiananmen Massacre may happen in Hong Kong. So, the world's leaders should support the Hong Kong people with (their) solidarity.
VOA: China's media claimed that you and your colleagues actually are launching a 'color revolution,' or showing symptoms of a color revolution. What's your take?
Wong: We are just asking for the fundamental right to vote in the election, and that kind of blaming is meaningless.
VOA: What is the difference between self-determination and independence?
Wong: Self-determination means the political and economic status of Hong Kong should be freely determined by the Hong Kong people. So are our leaders, but they are sometimes selected by Beijing. That's not self-determination.
VOA: So, you are not seeking independence for Hong Kong?
Wong: I am not the one who is advocating for Hong Kong's independence. But our leaders are selected by Beijing.
VOA: Media across the world are reporting about the costs resulting from the protests, including Hong Kong risking an economic recession and loss of its status as a financial hub in Asia? Are you worried?
Wong: If the extradition bill is passed, it will erode Hong Kong's political and economic freedom. That's the reason — even the General Chamber of Commerce is also aware of that — it's time to protect Hong Kong's freedom.
VOA: Speaking of the extradition bill, if the Hong Kong government agrees to meet the "five demands," what are you and your colleagues going to do?
Wong: If the Hong Kong government accepts the five demands, it would be a miracle for Hong Kong.
VOA: What is the difference between the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and this round of protests? The Umbrella Movement, which got its name from the umbrellas used by protesters to shield themselves from pepper spray and tear gas, fizzled out. Do you think this protest might experience the same fate?
Wong: During the Umbrella Movement, the police fired 80 to 90 (rounds of) tear gas in Hong Kong. Now, they fired 2,000 (rounds of) tear gas in Hong Kong. So, we experienced a stronger crackdown on human rights.
VOA: So, you will fight more?
Wong: We will continue our fight for free elections, but the crackdown on human rights is beyond our imagination.
VOA: One more thing about the Umbrella Movement. Do you think it was a failure? What lesson have you learned from it?
Wong: The lesson we learned is that we should get more support from the public. Five years ago, we had 400,000 people. Now, we have 2 million people.
VOA: I've heard that some student leaders, including you, Alex Chou and Nathan Law, are planning to study in the United States, Britain and Taiwan. If you are leaving, how do you expect the protests will go on?
Wong: Nathan Law is (at) Yale. Alex Chow (is) now (at) UC Berkeley. But I have no plans to study overseas. Hong Kong and Beijing media say that I will study abroad. Where did you hear that fake news?
VOA: In your tweets, you mentioned that you want to meet with President Xi Jinping personally and directly. If he decides to meet with you, what are you going to say to him？
Wong: President Xi should come to Hong Kong and meet with the protesters, not only meeting with me. If he comes to the crowd of the protesters, I think the protesters will chat with him and express the voices of the Hong Kong people.
VOA: Do you think that will help solve the problems in Hong Kong, as President Donald Trump claimed?
Wong: Carrie Lam is a proxy leader.The final decision-maker is President Xi. Expressing our voices to President Xi is our best way.
VOA: I've heard there are no prominent leaders for this round of protests. How do you expect to win if you have no leaders?
Wong: We will continue our efforts with our cause for free elections. We will not be threatened by that.
VOA: The Chinese government has made great efforts trying to educate young people in Hong Kong. Why can't they win the hearts and minds of the younger generation?
Wong: Because they are under authoritarian rule. We do not believe in authoritarian rule.
VOA: Do you still think Hong Kong has a future?
Wong: The future of Hong Kong should be in the hands of Hong Kongers, but it is now eroding (under) the Chinese government. That's why we are continuing to fight.
VOA: I've heard that a majority of young people in Hong Kong do not identify themselves as Chinese but as "Hong Kongers."
Wong: Hong Kong people may be ethnically Chinese, but lots of people do not consider ourselves, including me, as Chinese citizens.
VOA: Why not?
Wong: If we enter into mainland China, we will be kidnapped, detained and prosecuted And they did it already. So, there is no reason for us to be Chinese citizens.