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The simplicity of Wong’s message gives Hong Kong’s activists the best chance on focusing on their tactics without eternal debates about the goal

In my post about Britain’s relations with China during the Chinese state visit last month, I mentioned the case of Joshua Wong, the teenage protestor from Hong Kong and founder of the territory’s ‘Scholarism’ movement – a protest movement of Hong Kong school students against Chinese plans to introduce a compulsory “Moral and National Education Programme”, teaching that the Chinese Communist Party is “progressive, selfless and united”, into the Hong Kong school programme.  The students succeeded in having the implementation of the programme postponed, though not scrapped.

Open Democracy’s En Liang Khong has published a very interesting interview with Wong, who is on an international speaking tour ahead of learning whether he will sentenced for five years in jail for his protesting activities.  The interview is accompanied by an analysis of the divisions within the Hong Kong protest movement, including contributions by a number of Wong’s critics.

Whereas Hong Kong’s different protest groups have a wide range of agendas and political views, Wong focuses on one simple goal – that of universal suffrage for the people of Hong Kong.  This does not just mean that all of Hong Kong’s citizens can vote, a principle conceded by Beijing ahead of elections in 2017.  The issue is whether citizens will be free to stand for election, or whether the candidates eligible for election continue to be subject to Beijing’s approval.

In pursuit of his goal, Wong focuses on the co-operation between Hong Kong’s myriad civil society groups from different generations, professions, and political tendencies.  He stresses the need for these groups to show tolerance and willingness to operate with one another in pursuit of reform of Hong Kong’s existing institutions, for example by seeking a judicial review to lower the age limit to stand as a candidate for the Legislative Council from 21 to 18.  He says this is not a move away from street protest, but that the energy of protest must be focused on institutional change.

Despite the Umbrella Movement’s tactical similarities with the ‘Occupy’ movement in several Western countries, Wong is keen to emphasise his focus on the suffrage issue:  “Occupy Wall Street was fighting for an end to capitalism. But in Hong Kong, we are not even talking about the right or the left. We are talking about the foundation of society itself: the right for everyone to have the vote.”

Perhaps because of the simplicity of his message, the narrow focus of his goals, or even because of his high profile (he appeared on the cover of TIME magazine under the headline “The Face of Protest”), Wong is not short of detractors. In En Liang Khong’s article, the majority of those detractors are from the Left: Wong’s focus on suffrage, they argue, ignores what they regard to be as Hong Kong’s principle woe, that of its buccaneering form of capitalism:

But while Joshua Wong’s voice is a change from the old liberal guard, there are plenty of critical voices to his left. “What will political independence bring us, if we continue following capitalism?” Lala Pikka Lau asks. Activist Wong Kit agrees: “we are perpetually avoiding the real question of how Hong Kong’s crony capitalism can function equally well, whether it’s part of China or not.”

Wong is also accused of being simplistically anti-Chinese, the product of characteristic Hong Kong ignorance about China.  His response is that if Hong Kong does not secure a democratic political system by 2047 when the 1984 Sino-British agreement on ‘one country, two systems’ is due to expire, Hong Kong will simply become part of China and will no longer have the rule of law.  If the citizens of Hong Kong want to keep the rule of law, then as long as China remains Communist that means not being part of the mainland.

As an outside observer, I acknowledge my understanding of Hong Kong’s politics is thin.  But I am not so sure that Wong is as naïve as his critics suggest.  By focusing on a clear, mainstream issue that is easy to understand and has broad support, Hong Kong’s protestors would have the best chance of securing as broad a coalition of public support as possible. Their real challenge is how to get their tactics right, and the simplicity of Wong’s message gives them the best chance of focusing on their tactics without eternal debates about the goal.

Wong is also right to say that self-determination should be seen as a necessary step towards addressing Hong Kong’s social problems, not a means to ignore them.  Charges of ignorance about China are unfair and misguided – his understanding of the consequences of Hong Kong’s joining the mainland is clear-sighted.  How focusing on reforming or even scrapping capitalism – in Hong Kong of all places – within the existing system is more realistic, I don’t know.