The Death of Democracy in Hong Kong

Four years later, it’s clear that the reforms advocated by 2014’s youth-led, pro-democracy protest movement won’t take shape.

Joshua Wong stands in front of yellow umbrellas, the symbol of the 2014 Hong Kong protests, ahead of a 2015 court hearing.
Joshua Wong stands in front of yellow umbrellas, the symbol of the 2014 Hong Kong protests, ahead of a 2015 court hearing. (Vincent Yu / AP)

“You remember me!”

I couldn’t help laughing when Joshua Wong said those words to me, as I walked up to shake his hand after a small protest gathering he had helped organize broke up. It seemed a supremely strange comment to come from the mouth of the 21-year-old activist, whose face had been featured in television newscasts worldwide and had graced the cover of Time during Hong Kong’s 2014 protests.

We had met twice before this most recent brief encounter. A local historian who knew of my scholarly interest in protest movements introduced me to Joshua in 2013, when he was only 15 but already well known in the city for the leading role he had played in a successful effort to keep mainland-style patriotic education out of Hong Kong high schools.

We then spent an hour talking in a coffee shop in 2016, at a time when many had come to see Hong Kong’s protests, dubbed the Umbrella Movement for the object protesters used to shield their faces from tear gas and pepper spray, as a failure. Not only had they been unable to achieve their stated goal of expanding democratic procedures in Hong Kong, but a general sense had taken hold that repression was on the rise in a city whose local authorities were beholden to Beijing.

Along with those meetings, I have written essays about Joshua’s actions and the way the local authorities have tried to silence him. I’ve seen three documentaries dealing with him, and in one of these, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, I appear as a commentator.

How could I not remember Joshua?

“You remember me!”

I wondered at first whether he was intentionally being silly when he smiled and said those three words, but I quickly dismissed that possibility. Just before he noticed me walking toward him, he looked burned out and downcast. And there had been no frivolous moments during our two previous encounters. Serious, smart, dedicated, determined: These were adjectives I associated with him, but not silly.

Even if trying to amuse me was the furthest thing from his mind when he spoke, I chuckled over his words right after he said them. I laughed again several times during the rest of my week in Hong Kong as I told friends about our meeting, turning it into a comic anecdote. A few days after leaving the city and returning to California, though, I stopped finding his comment funny. Instead, I started to feel a sense of heartbreak.

It doesn’t take much to make me laugh, but I don’t cry easily. So it was a bit of a shock when, thinking back to seeing him while I rode my bike to the gym one morning, I felt tears welling up in my eyes.

At the time, I couldn’t figure out why I felt like crying. I now know that I was not just shedding tears for a young man I barely know. I was also mourning the demise of a special place. I was lamenting the slow death of Hong Kong, or rather of a particular Hong Kong.

A Hong Kong that was supposed to be able to enjoy a variety of distinctive freedoms relating to speech and assembly for 50 years after becoming integrated into the People’s Republic of China under the terms of a “one country, two systems” arrangement. A Hong Kong that has been altered by seemingly unstoppable processes that have transformed the difference between its way of life and that of urban centers across the border from a chasm to a gap.

That Hong Kong is not just in its death throes, but is imagined by some to have already died. This could explain why Joshua’s face lit up when I approached him. There is good cause for activists like him, famous or not, to be heartened by any sign that people who do not live in Hong Kong continue to care. That efforts to stem, at least partially and at least for a time, the city’s becoming more like an ordinary part of the mainland have not gone unnoticed.

“You remember me!”

Those words don’t haunt me as regularly as they did on the first day I cried thinking about Joshua saying them, but I still think back from time to time to that evening when he said them and find the memory heartbreaking.

Often I recall them when I mention how worried I am about the ongoing tightening of controls on Hong Kong and, more often than not, am met with a blank stare.

I don’t blame the people I am talking to for being unaware. The news cycle has been relentless, distracting, distressing. I’ve learned not to be surprised when news from China that seems urgent and important to me doesn’t register deeply in the United States, or takes far too long to make an impression, as happened with reports of the widening network of indoctrination camps in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. And with Hong Kong, the eventual disappearance of the city’s special status can easily seem old news, a fait accompli.

And yet, not being surprised and not being saddened aren’t the same.

I was saddened by the news that three organizers of Occupy Central With Peace and Love, the 2014 struggle that morphed over time into the Umbrella Movement, are going on trial. The trio—two senior professors and a 74-year-old reverend—simply called for nonviolent acts of civil disobedience of the sort that were supposed to be acceptable in a “one country, two systems” framework. Yet their case remains under the radar for many people I know, and seems likely to end with them being sentenced to seven years in prison.

I was saddened when a group of booksellers was kidnapped for producing works on the private lives of top Chinese Communist Party leaders, a story that seemed to gain little traction in the United States.

I was saddened when a foreign journalist, for the first time, had a request for a routine extension of a work visa denied, without explanation, and then was blocked from coming to the city as a tourist. His only apparent transgression: having played host at a talk that the local authorities, eager to please Beijing, wish had not taken place.

“You remember me!”

Joshua Wong is not forgotten. There are still some people like me outside Hong Kong who remember him, and there are still some in the territory who need him—or, at least, need some of the things he has come to symbolize. And yet, one reason he was probably sad just before I went up to him was that—because of a mixture of factors, from fear or exhaustion with protesting to the limited methods of spreading word of what was happening—only a small group of people had answered the call he’d put out for a crowd to join him at the protest.

Even the promise that the event would include appearances by a pair of famous visitors—two members of the Russian group Pussy Riot who were in the territory to take part in LGBT-rights activities—had failed to get more than a handful of people to turn out.

I will probably never know what Joshua was thinking when he said the three words that have stuck with me. I am pretty sure that he wasn’t trying to make me laugh or trying to make me cry. But with three simple words, he managed to make me do both.