YOUNG VOICES

Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution Has A Truly Complex Leadership

01/10/2014 16:55 BST | Updated 01/10/2014 19:59 BST

He's a skinny student who isn’t even old enough to vote, yet Joshua Wong is one of the most prominent figureheads in Hong Kong’s unprecedented pro-democracy protests.

Even at just 17 years of age, Wong is a seasoned activist and leads the Scholarism movement, which successfully stopped plans for a pro-China 'national' school curriculum in Hong Kong.

Wong led last week's classroom boycotts which triggered strikes and protests in other sectors, and ultimately the mass occupation of the island's Central business district.

hong kong

Benny Tai (left) and Joshua Wong are figureheads in the protests

But despite emerging as a key figure, Wong did not start the high-profile, 18-month-old Occupy Central movement.

Benny Tai, a middle-aged law professor at Hong Kong University, founded the original Occupy campaign, which pushes for Hong Kongers to be able to vote for whomever they want in the 2017 elections, without China vetting the candidates beforehand to determine who can stand.

Tai is older, more experienced and more connected to the authorities than Wong, but no less outspoken.

After months of campaigning without any occupations, he called for civil disobedience last weekend after the growing student movement reignited Hong Kong's appetite for protest, bringing together two different strands of the region's discontent.

THE FIREBRAND STUDENT: JOSHUA WONG

Age: 17

From: Hong Kong

Known for: Founding student activist group Scholarism

joshua wong

Joshua Wong at the annual Hong Kong pro-democracy protest in July

Wong is a confident, idealistic campaigner who believes students are the key to Hong Kong’s future.

The headstrong teenager is considered "extremist" by the state-run Chinese media. He called for the school strikes that then triggered the call for civil disobedience from Occupy Central, a separate movement, which most students rallied to, recognising the similar aims of the groups.

He is currently recovering after being arrested and held for more than 40 hours by police, after he led a group of students who stormed the Hong Kong government headquarters last week according to Reuters.

Media reports said Wong was bleeding as police dragged him away from the protest. Wong himself claims he was left bruised from the scuffle. Around 100 students tried to access the government compound, prompting police to use pepper spray to restrain them.

"Hong Kong's future belongs to you, you and you," Wong reportedly shouted to a cheering crowd as he was arrested.

One of Wong's early tastes of protest was as part of the ‘anti-high speed rail movement’ opposing plans for a fast railway to link Hong Kong with mainland China, when he was around 13.

Aged just 15, he then founded the Scholarism movement, which forced the Hong Kong government to cancel plans for ‘moral and patriotic' school curriculum, which many considered to be biased towards the Communist Party of China.

Wong rallied around 120,000 people for Scholarism and rose to fame through actions including occupation protests and hunger strikes.

joshua wong

Wong leads protestors in a gesture of solidarity

Last week a pro-Beijing newspaper wrote that Wong had close ties the United States and was helping the CIA attempt to infiltrate Hong Kong schools. Wong has denied the allegations.

Wong has been suddenly thrust into the spotlight, along with Alex Chao, the general secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, and a Scholarism ally.

But he doesn't want to be revered, and argues that protests should be collective movements. “If a mass movement turns into worshipping a particular person, that’s a great problem,” he told Chinese media outlet South China Morning Post in 2012.

“You don’t need role models to be part of a social movement as long as you care about the issues,” The Guardian has also reported him as saying.

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Wong told the New York Times in June that students have to fight for their beliefs. “I think students of different eras have the responsibility to answer the call of their times; to stand on the frontline of democracy. If students don’t stand on the frontline, who else can?”

A Times film shows him holding hands with other activists, chanting “civil nomination… is uncompromisable.”

Wong also speaks with force and confidence about equality. “We think that ‘power to the people’ means that each Hong Kong citizen, regardless of class, academic background and wealth, is part of Hong Kong, and they should have the opportunity to participate in it," he told the New York Times.

He believes the discontent and activism will intensify if China does not meet the 1 October deadline to grant protestor demands for equal suffrage and the right to elect a Hong Kong leader who has not been vetted by China.

THE LAW PROFESSOR - BENNY TAI

Age: 50

From: Hong Kong

Known for: Founding peaceful movement Occupy Central

benny tai

Benny Tai is a professor at Hong Kong University

Up until last month, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a 50-year old associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong, was the most visible face of the pro-democracy protestors.

He has a masters degree in law from the London School of Economics, and is also on the panel of advisors for the Office of the Ombudsman, a non-governmental body which addresses grievances in the public sector.

Tai founded Occupy Central with Love and Peace (now simply referred to as Occupy Central) to lead the effort to allow Hong Kong residents to directly elect their chief executive.

But at the start of September, he appeared to lose confidence in the group which he admitted had failed to win broad public support. Briefly, it looked as though the group's planned occupation of Hong Kong's business district would never happen.

benny tai

Tai speaks at an Occupy Central rally

But after the student protests took hold of the city, Tai officially called for Occupy Central supporters to take action.

He was described yesterday as “exhausted and hoarse ” by Foreign Policy. He had initially only expected 10,000 people but the protests have gone far beyond what he imagined. He said he was proud of their commitment to non-violence, and condemned the violence of officials.

Like Wong, he rejects any sort of leadership role, saying to Foreign Policy: “When a social movement provides a citywide political awakening, it can no longer be controlled by the organisers or the initiators”. Hong Kong’s officials have the power to control the protest by giving in to demands, he claims.

He seems more considered than Wong and the other student leaders, and the balance between the different figureheads is a complex one. While some students feel Occupy Central hijacked their protest, much of the mainstream media considers the students to be the leader of Occupy Central, rather than its founder Tai.

Tai said that he and the original Occupy Central leaders are now united with Scholarism, and the movement has now become far bigger than both of them.

"After students started the class boycott, they also began what was the largest-scale occupation of Civic Square and the empty land opposite the square. We shared the same goals and methods. It was impossible for Occupy Central not to support the students.

"We were very clear that students were the leaders and we just stood behind to support them. But now it has morphed into a territory-wide movement initiated by citizens, and no individual, or organization is directing the movement.

"As the student leaders said, the movement has no leader, because everyone is a leader."