HONG KONG (AP) — Overseas, Joshua Wong has emerged as a prominent face of Hong Kong’s months-long protests for full democracy. At home, he is just another protester.
The 22-year-old activist, who rose to fame as a leader of democracy protests five years ago, speaks to a U.S. congressional committee on Tuesday, following visits to Germany and Taiwan to drum up support for the movement.
While not diminishing the importance of that role, other protesters say Wong does not speak for what is purposefully a leaderless movement. He has received media coverage, both because he is well-known and the movement is largely faceless, since many protesters speak only anonymously and wear masks to try to avoid arrest.
“Not that nobody cares about what he says, but it’s just that Joshua Wong alone cannot represent the whole of Hong Kong,” said Sean Au, a 17-year-old student. “He is just a participant, no longer a leader.”
His activities have nonetheless made him a target of the Chinese government, which has used him to accuse foreign powers of colluding with anti-China separatists to foment unrest.
Wong’s activism started at age 13 when he joined protests against a proposed high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and mainland China. The link opened last year after many delays.
The bespectacled teen set up a student activist group, Scholarism, months later and rallied more than 100,000 people to protest a plan to implement mandatory patriotic education in schools. The government eventually dropped the plan.
It was the 2014 Umbrella Revolution that propelled Wong into the global spotlight. Protesters occupied major thoroughfares in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory for 79 days in an ultimately unsuccessful push for direct elections for the city’s leaders.
Wong co-founded a political party, Demosisto, in 2016, but its members were disqualified from serving and later even running for office because they advocated self-determination. He remains secretary-general of the organization, which now describes itself on Twitter as a movement-oriented youth activist group.
Wong, who has been arrested and jailed repeatedly, was released in June, days after more than a million people took to the streets to protest an extradition bill which is widely regarded as an example of China chipping away at the city’s autonomy.
He was rearrested last month along with several others and charged with organizing an illegal rally outside a police station in June.
While Wong has inspired many, neither he nor other well-known individuals or groups have a central role in this summer’s mass movement, said Bonnie Leung of the Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized several massive marches this summer.
Leung acknowledged that Wong’s reputation as the poster child of the 2014 protest gives him stature as a protest representative on the global stage, along with others such as Hong Kong pop star Denise Ho.
“Globally we need actions that will make (the Hong Kong and Beijing governments) think twice before they act,” she said. “Joshua Wong is a well-known face across the world and he can help in this.”
Wong and Ho are among five people due to speak at a hearing of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China titled “Hong Kong’s Summer of Discontent and U.S. Policy Responses.”
They hope to rally support for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill proposing economic sanctions and penalties on Chinese and Hong Kong officials found to have suppressed democracy in the city.
Mousse Chan, a 45-year-old teacher, said she supports Wong in his global tour, though she echoed the view that he is not their leader.
“We believe that every Hong Kong citizen has a responsibility to raise awareness about our cause and he is just one of them,” she said.
Wong has accused the government of trying to frame prominent activists such as himself as a warning to other protesters, but he said it was doomed to fail as the current unrest has no centralized figureheads.
Born in 1996 to a middle-class Christian family, Wong has said his passion was ignited after his father started taking him to poorer areas when he was a young child. He has written a book called “I Am Not a Hero” and featured in a Netflix documentary entitled “Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower.”
Ahead of his trip to Germany this month, he made headlines in Berlin after suggesting that two panda cubs — born to pandas rented from China at the Berlin Zoo — be named “Democracy” and “Freedom” to send a clear signal to China.
He later compared Hong Kong with East Germany during the pro-democracy protests that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Beijing has rebuked German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas for meeting Wong, saying he disrespected China’s sovereignty.
Wong tweeted Sunday that human rights clauses should be included in the ongoing trade negotiations between the U.S. and China.
“I see no reason for us to give up and it’s time for the world to stand with Hong Kong,” he said.