The 19-year-old is speaking to me shortly before delivering a speech to a packed chamber at the Oxford Union, the latest stop on his international speaking circuit. It’s a million miles away from what he faces back home in Hong Kong. “Now we are paying the price with political prosecutions,” Wong tells me. He has been charged with unlawful assembly, and faces up to five years in prison if convicted, along with other youth leaders of the protests which billowed across Hong Kong for three months at the end of 2014.
The pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong has always moved according to its own unstable, unpredictable logic. Last September, Joshua Wong urged activists to seize Civic Square, directly in front of the government headquarters. Wong found himself in a police station while 200 protesters occupied the space. But over Wong’s two nights in prison, the protest movement escalated to tens of thousands, growing even more furious after police fired 87 canisters of tear gas into crowds. Umbrellas were used to shield activists from waves of pepper spray. And in this humble household object, the movement suddenly found its symbol of resistance.
As the clouds lifted, the initial anger around the lack of public electoral participation – and in particular, the plan that nominations for Hong Kong’s chief executive be left to a Beijing-screened group – had erupted into a full-scale social explosion.