Joshua Wong is running late for lunch — but can we blame him? The 20-year-old political activist just finished a final exam, and he’s heading into town via the MTR, Hong Kong’s metro, which is packed during the midday rush. And besides, he’s jetlagged: only 24 hours earlier he got back from a week in the U.S., where he met with such high-profile political figures as Marco Rubio and Nancy Pelosi, who have been actively sympathetic to his fight for democracy in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
All of this serves to underscore the most improbable life of “the face of protest,” as TIME dubbed Wong in 2014, when his role as a figurehead of the pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution here earned him a spot on the magazine’s cover. Two and a half years have passed. The primary demand of the Umbrella protests — Hong Kong’s right to directly elect its top official, who is known as the Chief Executive — went unheeded. Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s affairs has only increased. This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of what’s known in China as reunification but locally, and tellingly, as the Handover — when the U.K. relinquished its subtropical colony to Chinese rule under a political dynamic known as “one country, two systems,” intended to preserve the city’s capitalist liberties while allowing it to become part of the Chinese nation.
“But now it’s more like ‘one country, one and a half systems,’” Wong says.
In the time that has passed since the Umbrella Revolution, Wong and his colleagues in the pro-democracy activist camp here have not given up their fight. One of them, 23-year-old Nathan Law, was elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council last September, the youngest lawmaker in the territory’s history. Wong has kept up with his university studies — he has three more exams left this term — but moonlights as a globetrotting spokesperson for democracy: giving speeches on college campuses; meeting with prominent political figures; penning op-eds for TIME and the New York Times.
In January, he flew to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, for the premiere of a documentary about the Hong Kong protests called Joshua: Teenager versus Superpower. In its treatment of the protests, the film presents Wong as something between a general and a martyr, a characterization he disagrees with. “The Hongkongers who confronted tear gas in the streets are the real heroes.”
TIME caught up with Wong over lunch at a bistro across the street from Hong Kong’s government headquarters to catch up on the film, his travels to the U.S., and what will come next in the fight for democracy in China’s freest city.
Nearly three years have passed since the Umbrella Movement. Have things gotten better or worse in Hong Kong, and are you optimistic for the future of democracy here?
Freedom of press and speech have been eroded. People who have criticized the Chinese government have been kidnapped. Even some business people who support Beijing have faced abduction. But I’m still optimistic. The fight against the largest authoritarian regime in
the world is a long-term battle.
A lot of people overseas are somewhat confused by Hong Kong: they don’t know if it’s a city in China, or an autonomous city-state like Singapore. What’s the most important thing they should know?
Hong Kong was promised democracy under the framework known as ‘one country, two systems,’ and China is ignoring this promise. The international community should be more attuned to this. It matters. I’m hoping this documentary brings more attention to it.
The documentary portrays you as the hero and leader of the Umbrella protests. Is this fair?
I’m not a hero. The Hongkongers who confronted tear gas in the streets are the heroes. But of course the reality when making a documentary like this is that it’s hard to focus on everyone.
You just returned from Washington, where you met with some high-profile U.S. politicians who support your fight. But does the current state of U.S. politics make you second-guess the merits of democracy?
Not at all. At the end of the day, people in the U.S. can still go to the polls and choose their leader every four years. People in the U.S. are downhearted right now. Under Chinese rule, we’re also depressed — but we can’t even vote.
Hong Kong was for years one of the world’s great financial capitals, but many people are now saying it’s on the decline. The quality of life has fallen; the cost of living has climbed; the rise of cities like Shanghai has made it less important in the global marketplace. Do you agree?
If Hong Kong people keep silent and do nothing, of course Hong Kong will become just another second-tier Chinese city. But Hong Kong is unique, and we’ve been lucky that Hong Kong people have been trying their best to fight for our core values. We still have
What will it take for Hong Kong to achieve the sort of democratic system you and your peers are fighting for?
We’ve organized the largest public disobedience movement in China since Tiananmen Square in 1989. But apart from straight activism, we need to increase our influence within institutions, especially global institutions. The support of the international community really matters to us. This is why I’ve been going to Washington. Before the Handover in 1997, the world really endorsed the implementation of ‘one country, two systems,’ and now it is being eroded. People should not keep silent.
You just turned 20 a few months ago. You have a long way to go — and so does Hong Kong. Where do you see yourself 10, 20, even 30 years from now?
I will try my best to fight for democracy in Hong Kong however I can. I hope to get a chance to run for office here. As far as the international community goes, I think I can be the one to stand up and explain to the world what’s going on in Hong Kong.
Many people are cynical about Hong Kong’s future. But what’s been the most promising change you’ve witnessed here in your lifetime?
Hong Kong was once just an economic animal — a financial hub, a business city. But we’ve proven that we want and deserve democracy. We’ve proven that we don’t just care about money.