Joshua Wong is a free man, and a very young one, when he arrives Wednesday afternoon in front of a plaza in Hong Kong that he calls Citizen’s Square. But he may not be free for much longer. On Thursday, the 20-year-old faces a prison sentence for kicking off massive pro-democracy protests here three years ago. “I am not really ready for it,” he told TIME in an exclusive interview.
On Sept. 26, 2014, Wong and a small crowd of fellow student activists stormed the forecourt of Hong Kong’s government headquarters to oppose what they viewed as political and social encroachment by China. Originally an open plaza, the forecourt was fenced off in 2014 to prevent protesters, from democracy activists to land rights campaigners, from assembling there.
That night, Wong and others were pepper-sprayed amid scuffles with police, and at least a dozen students were arrested. Two days later, partly in response to clashes at the forecourt — which protesters began calling “Civic Square” or “Citizens’ Square” — tens of thousands of mostly young people flooded the Central and Admiralty neighborhoods, Hong Kong’s seats of power. There, they vastly swelled already-planned protests against Chinese interference in Hong Kong elections, and stayed on the streets for 79 days of mostly peaceful occupation. Wong’s remarkable role in the protests is the subject of the Netflix documentary Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower.
Of all the events that made the movement that was later dubbed the Umbrella Revolution, it was this first act that may haunt Wong. On Aug. 19, 2015, he and two of his peers, with whom he founded the political party Demosistō, were charged with unlawful assembly and inciting unrest for their role in storming the government forecourt. They were convicted on July 20, 2016 and sentenced to 80 hours of community service. On Thursday, Wong, along with Nathan Law, 23, and Alex Chow, 26, face a judicial panel that has been asked by prosecutors to imprison them on the grounds that their sentence was too lenient and sent the wrong message to other activists.
In September last year, Law became, at 23, the youngest lawmaker ever elected to Hong Kong’s legislature, but he was ousted by pro-Beijing colleagues over claims that he disrespected China during his oath-taking ceremony. If he is imprisoned for more than three months, he will be legally disqualified from running for political office for five years — as will Wong and Chow. That the courts have even agreed to reassess the trio’s sentences after they have already been dealt and served has sounded alarm bells that China, of which Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous territory, may be putting pressure on what has long been cherished as an independent judiciary.
On Wednesday, an anxious but resolute Wong met with TIME outside the very same plaza he stormed three years ago. With less than 24 hours before the judges’ decision, he spoke candidly about his belief that he has become a target of political prosecution, his goal of a democratic and self-ruling Hong Kong, and his hopes that his hometown will stand its ground to remain what he calls the freest territory of China.
His interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The court is about to revisit its punishment for your role in the events of Sept. 26, 2014, when you and other student activists stormed the forecourt at government headquarters. Could you also revisit those events for us?
Three years ago, we organized an action to reclaim Citizens’ Square and to ask for free elections and democracy in Hong Kong. We were against the interference of the Communist Party of China. Today we’re facing a verdict that comes from the Chinese government. They will probably send me to prison for more than half a year. What I want the international community to realize is that Hong Kong is already under authoritarian rule. This is a long-term battle, and we ask for long-term support. Hong Kong is now under threat.
Looking back on that action, is there anything you would have done differently if you could do it over?
I have no regrets at all. We were against patriotic education [an attempt by local authorities to impose a pro-Beijing curriculum on local schools], which is why we took the square. Three years ago, the government set up a barrier to block our freedom of assembly. So we organized an action to reclaim the square to remind people that it’s time to take back their rights. This was the first place I was arrested, and it’s the reason I will be sent to prison, but I do not regret it at all and I will still keep fighting for democracy.
Given that you’ve already served a sentence for this case, and given that revising the sentence would legally derail your stated aim of running for political office, do you view the appeal on your sentencing as a political act?
Last summer I was sentenced to 80 hours of community service — tomorrow [Thursday] I will face nearly a year-long sentence with immediate imprisonment. It just proves that the Hong Kong courts just obey China. This is meant to be a threat.
If imprisoned, many will view you and your colleagues as Hong Kong’s first political prisoners. What does this say about the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary, which you have referred to as one of the “core values” of the territory?
Judicial independence is under threat because of the Department of Justice’s loyalty to China. I hope people will realize that. One decade ago, people described Hong Kong as a place without democracy but with rule of law. Now Hong Kong has already transformed into an authoritarian regime.
We won’t be the first political prisoners in Hong Kong [on Tuesday, the courts sentenced 13 activists to jail terms of 8 and 13 months for storming the legislature on a protest over rural development projects]. We’re just the first from the Umbrella Movement. The government reviewed this case against us because they hope to send us to prison and block our chances of running in elections. I believe the Department of Justice is reviewing my sentence because they hope I don’t run in an election.
Do you view Hong Kong as a barometer of freedom elsewhere in Asia, and do you view the way you’re being treated as an omen for democratic norms and rule of law in the broader region?
Hong Kong is the city with the highest degree of freedom of all the Chinese territories. In the Asia Pacific, I think Hong Kong should be in the spotlight to make people realize that [China] is still violating human rights. I hope the experience of Hong Kong will urge global solidarity and make people care about Hong Kong. Now it’s a place where youngsters — like her or him or me [gestures at passersby] — are sent to prison.
What impact do you think your experience with the courts will have on the many young people in Hong Kong and elsewhere that have become more politically active in recent years?
In the past few years there has been an uprising, a new political awareness among my generation. However, political prosecutions and sentences are increasing. We are in a time of darkness for my hometown. But in a dark era like this, with the repression of the Beijing regime, youngsters must fight on the front line to ask for democracy. I just want to say that if Nathan, Alex and I are in prison, and we cannot stand on the front line, there’s no reason for anyone else to take a step backwards.
It’s safe to say that most observers predict that you are going to prison. You’re only 20 years old. Are you afraid?
I am not really ready for it. And when, after I have been sent to prison, I can only meet my parents twice per month for half an hour. I will miss them, and I will miss my home. No one wants to be sent to prison, including me. I’m tired, and I’m scared, but I will still keep on fighting.