As youth-led pro-democracy movements continue to gain traction across Southeast Asia, one of Hong Kong’s leading protest voices has pledged solidarity with other activists in the region.
Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong pro-democracy advocate and politician who rose to global prominence during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, drew parallels between recent protests in Hong Kong and current pro-democracy demonstrations happening in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia.
“Language barriers and cultural differences do not matter,” Wong told VICE News in a phone call from Hong Kong.
“What happened in Hong Kong has inspired other student protest movements and I know that a lot of Thai protesters in Bangkok look to us Hong Kongers for solidarity and support.”
A new youth-led protest movement has recently emerged out of Thailand and is challenging the country’s military government. Earlier this month, Thailand saw its largest anti-government protests since the 2014 military coup, as protesters have heightened calls for three major structural changes: the dissolution of parliament, the end to the intimidation of government critics, and the rewriting of the nation’s constitution.
Protests in solidarity with Thailand also took root in Taiwan, which saw its own spat of pro-democracy activism through 2014’s Sunflower Movement. The political movement is credited with unleashing a wave of youth-led activism in Taiwan that has reshaped the island’s political landscape.
According to Wong, there are similarities in the way pro-democracy movements have spread across Asia, as well as commonalities between recent protest activities.
“We have common goals, beliefs in solidarity and unity as well as similar shared experiences dealing with government oppression,” Wong said. “That is something we can all relate to in our respective fights against upper-class elite political guards who want to dictate and dominate our futures.”
“I stand with Thai protesters and other brave, young people fighting for change across Asia,” he added.
The 23-year-old protest leader is also a prominent member of the Milk Tea Alliance, an internet-born pro-democracy union formed between keyboard warriors in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. The movement has recently seen a resurgence online in the wake of Thailand’s intensifying protest movement.
“The Milk Tea Alliance is an important and timely one for all student protesters and young activists because it allows us to support each other,” Wong said of the online solidarity pact. “It also raises greater awareness of each other’s struggles in fighting for our collective futures.”
Wong is no stranger to dealing with government intimidation in response to his activism. In 2015, Wong was denied entry into Malaysia, where he was supposed to speak about democracy. In 2016, he was detained at the Bangkok airport upon arrival and deported back to Hong Kong, seemingly at China’s behest.
“I have been blacklisted and locked up by authorities in Southeast Asia as part of Chinese government efforts to silence me and stop me from globally engaging with students, politicians and citizens from other countries,” Wong said.
Pro-democracy activists in other countries have also been targeted for even being associated with Wong.
“Jolovan is a friend and I only wanted to give my direct support to him and Singaporeans by speaking so I am very disappointed in the way that the Singaporean government has handled his case,” Wong said.
Wong says he hopes to speak with students across Southeast Asia about the dangers of dictatorship and the importance of living without fear of government intimidation.
“It is time for the rest of the world to see what’s going on in Southeast Asia—intimidation by authoritarian governments who are relying on outdated laws and ideologies to suppress young voices that want change and a better future.”
Wong illustrated his point by describing an incident that happened last weekend, in which he says he was “stalked, harassed and verbally abused” by a “middle-aged pro-Beijing gang” who tried to provoke a reaction from him and his friends as they visited the popular Victoria Peak park. Wong said he was followed by a private car bearing a suspicious license plate.
“These acts of intimidation by the Chinese government are nothing new to me but they are getting more daring,” he said.
“After doing some digging, I found out that the car was registered to a local policeman.” He speculated that the Hong Kong Police Force had “provided a vehicle” to support mainland gangs in harassing him.
Despite concerns for his safety, Wong has vowed “never to give up” in his outspoken activism. He has even acknowledged that he is likely a “prime target” Hong Kong’s new national security law, which bans all forms of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with a foreign country and threatens a maximum penalty of life in prison. It has already been used to justify the arrests of dozens of pro-democracy activists and has been labeled by some as a way for the Chinese government to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong.
“I have fears of arrest,” Wong said, “but seeing other like-minded young protesters inspires me.”
“Asia deserves democracy too and we should be allowed to live freely, without threats or intimidation from authoritarian governments,” he added.