October 8, 2014 7:14 PM EDT
Photograph by James Nachtwey for TIME

Joshua Wong does not want to grow up. He’s a Hong Kong kid and that’s why, just before midnight on Oct. 6, he and his girlfriend (and his girlfriend’s friend, because teenagers travel in packs) have ducked into a barbecue joint in the working-class neighborhood of Mongkok to feast on grilled scallions, roasted pineapple and Chinese egg noodles bathed in cheese and garlic—a classic Hong Kong fusion dish. Wong, who turns 18 this month, sucks down the pasta with one hand and checks his smartphone with the other. Slurp, swipe, slurp, swipe.

The clatter of Cantonese rattles around the restaurant. An overhead TV displays images of the student-led protest movement that has occupied key commercial districts of Hong Kong, highlighting the dilemma of a hybrid city reared on democratic ideals but ruled by an authoritarian China. No one in the eatery, though, pays much attention to the news. This kind of place—fluorescent-lit, Formica-clad, Hong Kong soul food of the cheesiest, noodliest variety—is why Wong, one of the organizers of the protest campaign, says he will never leave his home city, why he, like Peter Pan, never wants to become that most disdainful of species: an adult. “The future will not be decided by adults,” says Wong. “I would like to ask adults, people with capital and power, Why are they not fighting for democracy?”

(PHOTOS: A New Generation Speaks: See Inside Hong Kong’s Protests)

If Wong is wary of adulthood, his beloved home, Hong Kong, is also suspended in adolescence. The city may be the financial heart of the world’s most dynamic region, a collection of 7.2 million people for whom pragmatism and efficiency are a guiding faith. But since its inception as a tiny fishing port plundered by the British from the enfeebled Qing dynasty in the mid–19th century, to the colony’s hand­over back to China in 1997, Hong Kong has never been permitted political maturity. It was always a pawn of empire.

When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty, the former Crown Colony was given a 50-year adjustment period to mainland rule. The “one country, two systems” policy guaranteed the territory a “high degree of autonomy” from Beijing on most everything but security matters. In 33 years’ time, though, the city will revert to full Chinese governance. Little Hong Kong will be forced to grow up and merge with the masses.

The trajectory toward 2047 is particularly troubling for Hong Kong youth, who will inherit this new political reality. Already, many locals worry that China’s communist rulers are eroding the freedoms—like an independent judiciary and an open press—that differentiate the city from the rest of China. Beijing’s recently announced plan to prevent Hong Kong from freely electing its chief executive galvanized the first batch of protesters who crowded the city’s downtown in late September. But it was the overreaction to this display of civil disobedience—sprays of tear gas from the police and outright thuggery from elements of Hong Kong’s underworld—that led tens of thousands to occupy more streets, a spontaneous, sympathetic outpouring no one, least of all Wong, expected. Umbrellas, unfurled by students against the pepper spray, turned into the movement’s symbol. Hong Kong’s very public struggle now ranks as China’s most consequential protest since the 1989 pro-democracy rallies were crushed at Tiananmen—and young Hong Kong residents have provided the crusade with both its population and its passion.

The student-led siege of prime Hong Kong property is not going to suddenly transform the territory into a full-fledged democracy—certainly not if the Chinese Communist Party remains in power on the mainland. As a government ultimatum to clear the streets expired without incident on Oct. 6, the urge for solidarity against the authorities faded; protest numbers have waned. Nevertheless, the events of the past few weeks have awakened a political consciousness that few, even in the city itself, knew they possessed. Their idealism, not to mention their organizational acumen and communal spirit, is exactly what threatens China’s rulers, who, from the heady days of Tiananmen and further back in the country’s history, know well the transformative potential of students on the streets.

Teen Icon

It was past 1 a.m. on Oct. 2, and the throngs gathered outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters in Admiralty district were starting to dissipate. Protesters had spent days camped on an overpass, sleeping curled around their backpacks, subsisting on crackers and KFC. Throughout the campaign, some had been pepper-sprayed and soaked by rain. The air was growing thick again, and restlessness had set in.

As a light mist fell, word spread: Joshua Wong—who on Sept. 26 was arrested for trespassing and spent 46 hours in detention for the students’ initial occupation—was about to speak. Many in the crowd raised their phones to capture the moment. With his bowl-cut bangs, sparse stubble and thick-framed spectacles, Wong looks like any other nerdy kid in a society where nearly half of youngsters wear glasses. His delivery at the makeshift podium set in the shelter of a pedestrian bridge came in confident, quick-fire Cantonese. The fight for full democracy is not over, he told protesters. “Stay,” he said. They did.

Off the podium, Wong is polite, prone to bringing his hands together in a penitent clasp. He was raised in a Christian family that dispatched him to rural China for volunteer teaching; some of his fellow student activists are friends from church. In 2011, when he was just 14 years old, Wong formed a group of students in Hong Kong called Scholarism to stop the territory from implementing a mainland-designed “national education” policy that ignored the Tiananmen massacre and pushed fealty to the Chinese Communist Party. After 100,000 people joined his 2012 street rally, the Hong Kong government backed off.

Wong had taken on Hong Kong’s bosses in Beijing—and notched a rare victory. Local celebrity followed, with breaking-news reports on his (mediocre) college-entrance examination results. Despite the attention usually reserved for Canto-pop heartthrobs, Wong lacks physical presence. His shoulders are hunched in the kind of phone-tethered posture that annoys mothers everywhere. Yet his rhetoric, often delivered with eyes squeezed shut, is unequivocal. “I don’t want to follow the games of adults,” he says, “handing out business cards that you’ll just put in the rubbish bin, chit-chat. Political reform is not going to come from going to meetings … We had to do radical action because our leaders did nothing.”

Wong has a girlfriend named Tiffany and thumbs picked raw from stress. He wishes he had more time to play mobile-phone games and displays no overriding affection for any particular book. Despite the command his speeches claim over the protesters, Wong says he has no wish to serve as an icon and is still shocked that his arrest last month galvanized so many to join the cause. He doesn’t have any heroes himself, neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Wang Dan, the Beijing university student whose leadership of the Tiananmen pro-democracy struggle made him “enemy No. 1” to the Chinese government. To Wong, the leaderless nature of the territory’s democracy movement is a strength, not a weakness. “If Hong Kong just relies on me,” he says, “the movement will fail.”

Generation Gap

Compared with their peers in mainland China, Hong Kong’s youth are wealthier, healthier and have access to social media like Facebook and Twitter that are blocked by Chinese censors. Wong is often asked if his parents are activists; they are not. There’s an assumption there must be something unusual about his upbringing, beyond his Protestant faith, that makes him care. “People think that every night we were talking about how the government was violating democratic principles,” he says. “[My parents] just gave me the freedom to do what I want.”

Such liberty in China is unique to Hong Kong, and the city’s prospects depend on the whims of a Communist Party led by a President, Xi Jinping, who has shown little tolerance for dissent. Even the local economy is not immune to jitters about the future, especially as worries proliferate that Hong Kong’s reputation for clean governance is being compromised by Communist Party politics. Hong Kong has long thrived as a conduit for foreign investors to China, but growth is slowing, chiefly because of sliding exports. “If Hong Kong is so obviously becoming just another mainland city, why not set up one’s regional headquarters in Beijing or Shanghai?” asks Carsten Holz, an economics professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Income inequality has surged since 1997 and now ranks as the highest in the developed world. The fertility rate is so low that the local population cannot sustain itself. Instead, an influx of mainland Chinese—40.7 million visited last year—has brought with it a flood of new wealth that has made Hong Kong’s homes the least affordable in the world, yet also the smallest, according to one housing survey. “We don’t see good prospects for our future,” says Katie Lo, 21, a university student.

Proud of their heritage—the Cantonese language instead of the Mandarin spoken on the mainland, for instance—locals fear a cultural and economic invasion from the north. “Stand on Canton Road,” frets legislator Claudia Mo, speaking of a major Hong Kong thoroughfare, “and you’ll hardly hear any Cantonese.” Mandarin has eclipsed English as the city’s second language. For her own part, Mo speaks very upper-class British English. She comes from a coastal mainland Chinese family that fled the communists and came to Hong Kong. But like many of her peers, she identifies as a Hong Konger first, global citizen second and a resident of the People’s Republic a distant third.

There’s plenty of chauvinism toward mainlanders in Hong Kong. A nasty local phrase labels them “locusts.” For all the hope that Hong Kong’s struggle might catalyze a similar awakening in the rest of China, where dissent usually earns activists jail terms, many Hong Kong students’ concerns are locally cocooned. “Hong Kong people want to protect our freedoms,” says Hiu Wah, a 19-year-old early-childhood education student. “I am not interested in changing Chinese politics.”

While Britain extended rule of law to its colony, it kept the populace all but disenfranchised. Since the 1997 handover, China has provided the territory with a string of proxies for its chief executive, the latest being the widely unpopular Leung Chun-ying. Hong Kong still boasts competent civil servants and veteran democracy legislators, with their crisp British accents and posh overseas degrees. But the youth at the barricades defending the protest sites wonder what all that conventional activism has done to change Hong Kong’s political predicament. “People always say to me, ‘Oh, if you want to change the world, first you need to go to university, then work as a government administrator or a businessman, then you can make policies,’” says Wong. “No, to affect the world, you go to the streets.”

Backlash

Movements need great men and women, and practical ones too. Already the protests have lost momentum, as the crowds thin. By the night of Oct. 7, no more than a couple thousand people milled around the main occupied zone in Admiralty district, well below the tens of thousands days earlier. So much energy has gone into figuring out how to get the protesters off the streets—endless talk about talking with the government, in addition to the actual talking—rather than figuring out how to turn this movement into practical policy that Beijing might consider. The protest leaders have declined to invite opposition politicians, who are well practiced at negotiating with the central government, into their movement. The same organizational and factional dysfunction that has beset protest movements around the world may undercut the Hong Kong campaign too. “They want to do it on their own,” says Emily Lau, head of the Democratic Party. “But why alienate pan-democrat legislators? Our goals are the same.”

Even for Hong Kong residents who support the students’ ideals, the lengthy shutdown of major roads and neighborhoods is a significant inconvenience. Paul Zimmerman, a district councillor who pointedly carried an umbrella to an official ceremony marking China’s National Day on Oct. 1, says it’s time to withdraw. “You’ve given people a voice,” he says, “now you give them the street back.”

Wong isn’t bothered. “You need to create the rules yourself,” he says. “Students have more time, more energy, so they should stand on the front lines.” Whenever Wong is spotted shuffling through any of the protest sites, he’s mobbed by dozens of news cameras and fans requesting snapshots with him. Hollywood actors might be used to the attention, but Wong is a student who, as he likes to point out, attends the ninth-ranked of nine universities in Hong Kong. (He is studying politics and public administration.) The attention, all those demands to explain his political philosophy and smile for selfies, is exhausting.

No wonder Wong is sometimes most comfortable going underground, literally. As he hops onto the subway, almost no one recognizes him. He’s just another teenager, swaying as the train tunnels under Hong Kong’s harbor, updating his Facebook page and WhatsApping madly. Three friends, also in Scholarism, stand next to him, absorbed in their own online lives. Barely a few seconds go by without frantic swiping. “Taking action is more meaningful than words,” says Wong. He dismisses planned negotiations with the authorities as “just an opportunity to show our anger to the government.” Inevitably, his head soon bends over his phone again, just a lone Hong Kong kid connecting with the world.

With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, Rishi Iyengar, Nash Jenkins and David Stout / Hong Kong

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Write to Emily Rauhala at emily_rauhala@timeasia.com.

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