He's not old enough to vote yet, Joshua Wong has become the face of a political movement, taking on the world's biggest Communist state so that his country can be free. In a sea of rallying grown-ups, you can spot Wong -- he's the skinny, chunky glasses-wearing teen inspiring thousands of his fellow protestors.
The 17-year-old is now widely perceived as the unofficial leader of Hong Kong's pro-democracy "Umbrella Revolution", leading thousands of activists decades his senior in a peaceful, yet tense battle to secure a democratic future for his nation.
Thousands of students and veteran protesters demanding that mainland China keep its promise of allowing democratic elections are looking to Wong for leadership. Why? Because he's a bad-ass who isn't afraid to speak his mind.
In High School He Was Balancing Homework With Radical Action
According to the New York Times, Wong first began making noise two years ago when he rallied fellow students to reject a government plan to add "patriotic education" course to school, saying it smacked of Communist Party propaganda. (At 13, he led student demonstrations against a plan to build a high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and the mainland.)
Wong, who turns 18 in two weeks, launched an Internet-based youth group called Scholarism when he was 14 to protest the education plan. Though it was initially seen as a well-intentioned, if naive, attempt to make change, as more than 100,000 students signed up it became a strong voice against the curriculum changes. After large street protests against the curriculum in 2012, the Hong Kong government scrapped the plan. Since then, Scholarism has become one of the leading voices calling for democratic elections.
"If you told people five years ago that high-school students would get involved in politics, they wouldn’t have believed you," Wong told the Times earlier his summer. "For students, what we have is persistence in our principles and stubbornness in our ideals. If students don’t stand in the front line, who will?"
Flash-forward to last week, when Wong helped organize a government building takeover in Hong Kong that got him arrested and inspired thousands of other protesters to march in the streets ahead of a scheduled rally.
He's The Viral Voice Taking On Typewriter Totalitarians
Wong was born less than nine months before England handed over its former colony, Hong Kong, to mainland China in 1997. Growing up in the Internet age, like many of his generation, he's resisted the authoritarian hand of the Chinese government and refused to fall in line with their edicts.
His anti-establishment pose has kind of made him a rock star, with the Times describing him as "a hybrid of a solemn politician and a bashful teenage sensation," who is often surrounded by admiring supporters and 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," the paper reported.
Wong's Is Basically The Professor X Of The Umbrella Revolution
Highly organized and able to cleverly run circles around aging government autocrats, Wong is basically a political superhero for his generation.
"Their mentality is very different from the older generation, so I call them mutants, in a good sense, like the X-Men,” said Chen Yun-chung, associate professor of cultural studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong of Wong. "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."
Kristof Van Den Troost, a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has attended the protests since they started, told the CBC that Wong has quickly risen to the top. "I think he's probably one of the most respected leaders," he said.
As Soon As Police Slapped On The Handcuffs, It Was On
Whether he planned it or not, Wong became the de facto face of the protests last Friday when he tried to pump up a crowd of beginning-to-get-bored students calling for democracy by urging them to seize "Civic Square," a courtyard in front of the Hong Kong government headquarters.
While 200 protesters maneuvered around guards and occupied the square, Wong was quickly arrested and dragged away in handcuffs. As images of his arrest spread across social media, the courtyard became the gathering point of thousands of protesters, who were later attacked with pepper spray and tear gas by police. The showdown became a catalyst, driving thousands more into the street for what has now become a growing, ever-louder push for true democracy.
"The protests really intensified after he got arrested," Van Den Troost said. "One of the first demands was to release him."
Wong -- who said his Protestant parents' interest in social injustice inspired him -- was held for two nights before a judge freed him.
"We have always brought up Joshua to be compassionate, caring, principled and loyal," his parents said in a statement after Wong's 25-hour detention ended. "And we are very proud of all that he is doing to make Hong Kong a better place for his generation, and our generation."
Why That Night In Jail Changed Things Forever
"Many citizens have said to me that 'Hong Kong relies on you,' " Wong wrote in a Facebook essay on Wednesday. "I feel uncomfortable and even irritated when I hear this praise. When you were suffering pepper spray and tear gas but decided to stay for the protest despite the repression from the government, I was not able to do anything other than stare at a meal box and the blank walls of the detention room and feel powerless."