From The Straits Times archives: Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old battling Beijing for greater democracy in Hong Kong

Scholarism founder Joshua Wong (centre) and other members chant slogans during a flag raising ceremony in Hong Kong on Oct 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Scholarism founder Joshua Wong (centre) and other members chant slogans during a flag raising ceremony in Hong Kong on Oct 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Over the past few days, as Hong Kong rallied in the thousands for greater democracy from China, no face has become more prominent and public than that of 17-year Joshua Wong's. Here is a profile of the veteran activist from The Straits Times archives.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on July 7, 2014

JOSHUA Wong is so scrawny he looks barely able to lift a backpack, let alone bear the weight of politically aware Hong Kong students' aspirations.

But that is exactly what he has been doing since he was 15 when he led a campaign that forced the government to back down on introducing national education in school.

Now 17, he has set his sights on a bigger target: battling Beijing to fight for greater democracy for Hong Kong.

Social media-savvy students have emerged as a powerful political and social force in the city.

Admirers say they are running ahead of even organised political parties and far more established civic groups in lobbying for necessary change.

Detractors worry that they herald the rise of radical politics in Hong Kong.

Last Tuesday, Wong's Scholarism student movement, together with the Federation of Students, comprising university unions, spearheaded a mini-Occupy Central exercise to lobby for the right of the public to nominate candidates in the Chief Executive race.

The illegal sit-in, which led to the arrest of 511 protesters, took place even before any such move by the original Occupy Central organisers, who felt that the government should be given time to respond to the unofficial referendum that ended on June 29.

But Wong felt it was time to step up the pressure and "create a sense of crisis for the government".

Such impatience to take action appears to have tapped into a vein of desire for change in Hong Kong society.

Today, Scholarism has more than 500 members and its popularity is rising rapidly. A poll released last Thursday found that the two-year-old group is eighth in a ranking of Hong Kong's top 10 political groups, just behind the city's largest and well-resourced pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

The child of middle-class Christian parents - his father works in a multi-national corporation while his mother is a housewife - Wong says his interest in social issues was piqued at an early age. When he was six or seven, his parents began to take him on visits to Hong Kong's poor.

During a recent interview with The Straits Times, he recounted how learning about the Tiananmen student movement in 1989 had fired him up.

Wong has difficulty reading because of dyslexia, but he is otherwise articulate and has formidable communications skills in rallying his young troops.

Looking back at what prompted him to get involved, Wong said in a local media interview: "I have always wondered why my life is so comfortable while others had so little."

Problems such as Hong Kong's widening income gap, he said, could be traced to structural flaws in its political system that allow vested interests to control politics and policies. "And that's where we need to start."

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