rebelling against low expectations

Joshua Wong, Age 17: Leading Democracy Protests in Hong Kong


HONG KONG (The New York Times) — The slight teenager with heavy rectangular glasses and a bowl cut stood above the ocean of protesters who had engulfed downtown Hong Kong. His deep voice was drowned out by cheers, but the crowd did not mind: They knew him and his message. It was Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old student activist who has been at the center of the democracy movement that has rattled the Chinese government’s hold on this city.

“When I heard the national anthem starting to play, I certainly did not feel moved so much as angry,” Mr. Wong said a few hours later, after a protest at a flag-raising ceremony on Wednesday morning to mark the Chinese National Day holiday. “When it tells you, ‘Arise! All those who refuse to be slaves!’ — why is our treatment today any different from the slaves?”


Mr. Wong emerged as a figure in Hong Kong’s activist circles two years ago, when he rallied students against a government plan to introduce “patriotic education” in schools, attacking it as a means of Chinese Communist Party indoctrination. He played a pivotal role in setting off the demonstrations of the past week, leading a surprise charge on a government building that resulted in his arrest and prompted thousands to take to the streets ahead of schedule. Local newspapers with close ties to Beijing have sought to smear him as a tool of the United States.

In reality, Mr. Wong is troubling confirmation for the authorities that the first generation in Hong Kong to grow up under Chinese rule is by many measures also the one most alienated from Beijing’s influence. He was born less than nine months before this former British colony’s handover to China in 1997, and raised here at a time when the party has tried mightily to win over the people and shape them into patriotic Chinese citizens.

His prominence in the protest movement also embodies a shift in politics here — youth anger amplified over the Internet, beyond the orbit of traditional political parties — that has confounded the local government and infuriated its Communist supervisors in the mainland.

That shift has made something of a political star of Mr. Wong, who comes across as a hybrid of a solemn politician and a bashful teenage sensation. These days, if he is not surrounded by admiring supporters, he is usually mobbed by television cameras and reporters. Even before the most recent round of protests, strangers would sometimes approach him to shake hands or offer a pat on his shoulders and ask about his exam scores and schoolwork.

Mr. Wong is keenly aware of the influence that he and his classmates wield. As early as July, well before Beijing proposed the election rules that are the target of the current demonstrations, Mr. Wong told The New York Times in an interview, “Electoral reform is a generational war.”

Chen Yun-chung, an associate professor of cultural studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said Mr. Wong and his generation of high school activists, combining idealism and organizational skills, had outflanked both the government and the older, more cautious generations of democrats in Hong Kong.

“Their mentality is very different from the older generation, so I call them mutants, in a good sense, like the X-Men,” he said. “There is always a danger of an even harsher crackdown that will scare the hell out of Hong Kong people. But at the same time, I don’t think these mutant leaders are just daydreamers. They know that they might not get what they want, but most of them are prepared to fight on.”

Mr. Wong represents a “culture of resistance that is idealistic and very persistent among the high school students,” he added.


But few expected Mr. Wong to have such a critical impact on events this past week. The democracy movement had appeared to be flagging, and students who had been boycotting classes were planning to mark the end of their campaign quietly on Friday night with a showing of video messages of support from Taiwanese activists.

As the video ended, Mr. Wong, speaking on the stage beside the screen, took many in the audience by surprise by urging them to seize “Civic Square,” the name that activists use for a forecourt to the Hong Kong government headquarters. Moments later, about 200 protesters eluded guards and took the square to loud cheers. But Mr. Wong was arrested before he made it and was dragged away in handcuffs.

News and images of Mr. Wong’s arrest spread quickly on social media, and the occupation of the forecourt became the nucleus of a protest that attracted tens of thousands of supporters. The police tried to break up the demonstration on Sunday with arrests, pepper spray and tear gas, provoking more public anger and bringing even larger crowds onto the streets, which have been occupied since.

The authorities held Mr. Wong for two nights before a judge granted a habeas corpus petition for his release.

Lee Cheuk-yan, the chairman of the pro-democracy Labor Party, said he was both stunned and heartened by the outpouring of youthful protest in the streets in the following days.

“You look at the faces here, and they are very young,” Mr. Lee, 57, said Tuesday night as he stood on a platform where he had been speaking to a vast crowd. “The old men will die, but the young will live on. They will beat them.”

He then resumed speaking to the young crowd through a loudspeaker, and repeated his comment to a roar of approval.

Mr. Wong, who is just shy of his 18th birthday, when he will gain the right to drink alcohol, is a veteran of theatrical protest politics. While in high school, at age 14, he and a classmate formed a youth group, Scholarism, to fight the “patriotic education” plan proposed by Beijing’s handpicked leader in Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying.

At first, their Internet-based movement was seen by many residents as quaintly naïve, but as more students joined, it became a potent force in the campaign against the curriculum changes. After big street protests in 2012, the Hong Kong government shelved the plan. Since then, Scholarism has been a major force in promoting demands for democratic elections that would allow voters to nominate candidates for the city leader, and it promoted a student boycott of classes last week.

“If you told people five years ago that high school students would get involved in politics, they wouldn’t have believed you,” he told The Times in July. “For students, what we have is persistence in our principles and stubbornness in our ideals,” he said, adding, “If students don’t stand in the front line, who will?”


Hong Kong’s news media has treated him with some of the intensity that it usually devotes to film and pop idols. In July, interest was so high in Mr. Wong’s university entrance exam score that he held a news conference. (Mr. Wong’s score turned out to be middling by Hong Kong’s rigorous standards, and he has enrolled in a local university that specializes in distance learning.)

Mr. Wong has said that he acquired his passion for politics from his parents, Grace and Roger Wong, Protestants who kindled a concern for social injustice and have said they are proud of their son but otherwise stay out of the spotlight.

Mr. Wong and the wave of youthful protest he has helped inspire are much less open to compromise than the traditional democracy camp in Hong Kong — a rift that may widen if the Chinese government offers only mild concessions and the protests continue. He did not respond to repeated calls and messages seeking an interview.

In an interview earlier this year with a Hong Kong publication, Mr. Wong argued that “compromising before you even begin fighting is illogical.”

“I have no problems with negotiating,” he added. “But before doing that, you better have some bargaining chips. If you don’t have that, how do you fight a war?”

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Photos courtesy of South China Morning Post, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Straits Times.

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About the author

Alex and Brett Harris

are the co-founders of and co-authors of Do Hard Things and Start Here. They have a passion for God and for their generation. Their personal interests include politics, filmmaking, music, and basketball. They are both graduates of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.


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  • Very inspirational ! ! ! I’m new to this, and want to read these more often. They really make an impact on pre-teens, teens, and even people in their early twenties. Thx so much for publishing these, Brett and Alex. Extremely encouraging too, especially when you’ve had a bad day. 😉

        • Is there a section where people can just talk about things? I know that this is just for commenting on this particular post.

          • Actually we are in the process of develop a discussion section of the website for exactly that purpose. Do you have a question or topic that you’d like to discuss? I could use it as one of the early discussion topics for the new section.

          • I just saw this and i totally *flipped* with excitement! Where do i start???? about the whole questions thing!!!! I’m so excited!!! One question that i have is how on earth do we change the world when the world doesn’t want to be changed…

            I have more, but i’ll save you the thought trip.

          • Hey, Brett, I have a few questions.

            My first one is, for the new discussion category posts, how often are you planning on posting?

            Secondly, for upcoming articles, what are y’all looking for, exactly? Because, I would be happy to write articles for the Rebelution, but I don’t know what exactly would be deemed good enough to be posted. (I just started my blog, so I’m a still a little new at this).
            Thirdly, I posted a comment a couple days ago (above) and I am curious if you’re interested in my request? (I figured, it would be best to reply to you, here, so you would get a notification instead of just hoping you came across my comment).
            Thanks, and God bless!
            – Trent

          • Hey Trent, I only have time to respond to your first question. I have a crazy couple days ahead of me, but I’ll try to get back to your other questions soon.

            My current (ideal) plan is to post discussion questions on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday — with regular posts on Monday and Friday (and eventually Wednesday). Because of how sick my wife is with Lyme Disease my actual success rate may vary from week-to-week. 😉

          • Hey, Brett, thank you for responding. I appreciate the time and effort you invest in us teens.

            I would like to post the prayer I will be praying for you:

            “Dear God,
            Thank you so much for using Brett and the rest of his family in such a powerful way. Please relieve some of these stresses that he has to go through, especially his wife’s sickness. You tell us, “You have not because you ask not”. Well God, I am asking you, the Great Physician, today, that you would reach down and heal Mrs. Harris from this Lyme disease. Please, Lord, heal her. I know you can do it. Please, show your amazing love and everlasting power! God, you have so much more work for the Harris family left to do. Please, in the name of Jesus, I beg you, PLEASE heal Mrs. Harris, I am on my knees, God. PLEASE, heal her. Brett and his family have done so much to influence my life! God, PLEASE, preform a miracle! I know you have the power. I know I should have faith that you will do this, but I still have that doubt in my mind. Please God, use my prayer dispute me! You are the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. If you answer any of my prayers, answer this one. I beg you, Father, PLEASE HEAL MRS. HARRIS. Lord, whatever you do, I trust you as my Savior and Lord. And I know that “All things work together for the good of those who love God”. Thank you, Father!
            In the name of Jesus Christ I pray this, Amen.

          • well, no, i don’t really have any suggestions, and they aren’t entirely applicable for publishing as a topic. by just talking, i meant about everyday life, and whats going on in other peoples lives. you know, just making conversation with one another without getting in the way of people commenting on your posts. i assumed that would annoy you a little 😉

          • and by saying, “just making conversation with people”, im not trying to suggest that there isn’t any, how should i put it. organized? divided sections? but it would get a little bit confusing if it was all one thing 😀 thank you for asking to hear my thoughts. when i joined this website, i seriously didn’t think that i would be getting replies from the actual creator of it!! thx again for taking my suggestions into condsideration

          • Nick,
            From reading some of the stuff that you have written, i think that you have a lot of really good ideas and an brilliant mind.

            Don’t be afraid to stand out and ask about ‘stuff’ So much brilliance is lost because people are afraid to just ask!

          • Ok, thx for the encouragement. I have to admit, I fell like a little kid being only 12 and then the people that brett and alex post about being 16-20

  • I’m so excited to see this here! 🙂 My mom is from Hong Kong; she listens to their radio and keeps us up to date on what’s going on over there. She mentioned that she listened to them interview Joshua the other day. His story is truly inspirational; thank you for sharing it!

  • Alex and Brett Harris,
    I am so grateful you guys started the Rebelution (at least) 9 years ago and that you continually work to bring this amazingly Biblical message to as many people as possible. It is both encouraging and inspiring to me!

    I would like to help in the little way I can by posting an article on my blog ( with the Do Hard Things message and a link to the Rebelution. This way, though I don’t have nearly as big an audience as the Rebelution does, I hope to reach more people with the Do Hard Things message.

    I find it most effective that the people who are the most involved in something are the best choice to write about that topic.

    So, I would like to ask, if you have the time and if you feel this is what God wants you to do, that you write an article geared to best expose the Do Hard Things message, for me to post on my blog, the Soldiers of God.

    Now, I understand that I’m asking a lot. So, if you can’t do it, I totally understand. But, with that being said, I think that if you do decide to do this, it might be helpful for bringing the Do Hard Things movement to a wider audience.

    Either way, thanks for listening and don’t ever stop working as hard as you are to further what I believe to be a devinely inspired movement for God. Keep it up!

    God bless and have an awesome weekend!
    – Trent Blake

  • I have been WAITING to see an article about the Hong Kong protestors!!! I’d looked for a news article on the young students leading the Hong Kong protests, but I couldn’t find an appropriate one. I am so glad there’s finally one! This article is BRILLIANT. It almost reminds me of Wilberforce and the Claphamites’ campaign to end the slave trade…. When Wilberforce and the abolitionists around his age began to grow older, their children began to take over the abolition campaign, and the children were more persistent and aggressive and helped the abolitionist cause become more successful. Kinda like this new generation of high school activists outflanking the older generation.
    Just a thought!

  • Wow. I’ve been reading a lot on the Hong Kong protests, but I hod no idea that his parents were Christians. I really admire how he is willing to stand up for what he believes. Now I only wonder what I can do……………………………

rebelling against low expectations

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