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Joshua Wong: a lesson of cultural innovation

In Asia, children are the present, not the future. Indian and Chinese teenagers don’t wait for adulthood to fight for their rights, and start early to outsmart the system with new media-based protest strategies.

While everybody’s favorite Nobel Peace prize Malala just celebrated the top grades at her school in Britain, another 18 years old activist, Hong Kong-based Joshua Wong, nominated for TIME’s Person of the Year 2014 and listed by Fortune Magazine as one of the World’s Greatest Leaders in 2015, was charged by the police for the demonstration held one year ago.

The Hong Kong Organized Crime and Triad Bureau just charged him and seven fellow activists for “Taking back Civic Square”, a dissident action deployed in September 2014, that triggered the 79-day pro-democracy Occupy campaign for universal suffrage. With more than 100.000 demonstrators blocking the streets, it was one of the biggest pains in Beijing’s repressive, stiff neck.

Joshua commented the charges on Facebook as “a joke”, since the occupied space was public: “I have no regrets about the decision I made on that day. You have to pay the price if you participate in a social movement”.

I interviewed Joshua in Venice more than a week ago at the Creative Time Summit, an event gathering artists and cultural producers dealing with social change. Out of all the speakers, Wong, one of the few non-artists, was the only one that we can really call a cultural innovator, or revolutionary in more classical terms. Many creative fighters in the line-up, some outstanding names like journalist Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!, or philosopher Antonio Negri, but none like Joshua that masters the rare art of social engagement, meaning the ability to empower civic society towards collective advancement, and most of all take all the risks of the game.

While most artists sell at galleries (or at Biennales) their “anarchist” work conveniently made in Brooklyn, Joshua, since age 14, sticks his neck out against the Chinese establishment, particularly calling for a better educational system in Hong Kong, as a prerequisite of a democratic culture. His group Scholarism, was able not only to organise massive non-violent protests, but most of all to open the eyes of a generation about their rights. Already arrested, threatened, assaulted, Joshua, doesn’t seem to slow down.
We chat over breakfast at the hotel as quickly as the young man’s schedule allows.

How’s education in Hong Kong?
The education system is quiet unreasonable. Only 18% of secondary or high school students can enter university. In total there are only 10 universities. I started to attend Open University since almost a year. It is actually not a high ranking university and it doesn’t trigger any interest in me. Most of my knowledge and experience comes from my work in social movement, not from school.

You started being an activist at the age of 14. Was there a defining moment or factor that opened your eyes? Your parents, teachers?
Most of the people of the new generations in Hong Kong support democracy. From a survey it emerges that nearly 80/90 % of people under 30 support the Occupy movement. My parents are not activists and don’t join the movement or assemblies, but support my involvement in it. There was not one specific triggering factor or turning point. Step by step I tried to learn more about civic disobedience and teach that politics is also for students, not only for people with high education levels that become officials. In May 2012 I organised a protest with 200 people, and a few months later it was thousands of them. I gradually realised that social campaigns can really foster change into people’s minds, and give support to my vision for society.

Is it a new way of living democracy coming from the internet culture?
Yes, it does come from the internet culture of grassroots participation. All of us organizing the movement come from the internet. Our Facebook page had 300k people followers from the beginning, more followers than any other artist or politician in Hong Kong.

You know Ai Weiwei’s story. Are you afraid that the Chinese government may somehow jeopardise your ability to express yourself as an activist?
Of course I can’t already go to Malaysia, Syngapore and Beijing, because they say I’m a troublemaker. But in Hong Kong I don’t think I would have any personal security problem. I might go to jail and need to go to the court, but I would still be able to organise social movement. If social movement wouldn’t be possible, in maximum 30 years time, Hong Kong would be like the rest of China.

What do you think of China’s responsibility in cutting the carbon footprint?
We focus more on political and educational topics, but I would like to say that even if China might become such a force in economy, politics, education, also the other countries need to take measures for the environment.

You are at an art summit. How do you involve art in your work?
Art is really important. I’m not an artist, but artists and activists are very related in Hong Kong. In our movements there are many artists involved to create image, communication, propaganda, and to transfer also boring and complex messages to society. Otherwise nobody would be interested in what we do. Social movements is not only for people who are passionate and knowledgeable about politics and business. Everybody is a citizen.

What’s your next move? Are you going to become an international advocate for education like Malala?
I hope my case is used internationally and can inspire new generations, because politicians are abusing citizens everywhere in the world. I want young generations to know that they can have inner pride, and the power to change social structures. But in the future i will still invest 100% of my efforts in Hong Kong. Now we have one country and two systems. In Hong Kong we have freedom of speech because we have the basic law, or principle of the rule of law (the legal principle a nation is ruled by law, and not by arbitrary decisions of individual government officials) – while in most of China this doesn’t exist, that’s why there’s no freedom of speech. We need to make sure that this right doesn’t decay. We need protect our right of self determination, and the fact that Hong Kong needs to remain Hong Kong, and not be assimilated to the rest of China.

While the Hong Kong police states there is no political consideration against the activists, many see not as a coincidence the timing of the charges, with the promotion of a referendum for Hong Kong’s self determination.

by Marcello Pisu

Edited picture by Reuters