National education in Hong Kong

Scholarism's Joshua Wong embodies anti-national education body's energy

15-year-old Joshua Wong Chi-fung, co-founder of the group Scholarism, has come to symbolise the anti-national education movement's energy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 August, 2017, 1:10pm

You know Joshua Wong Chi-fung is a busy young man the moment he meets you. With the government headquarters in Admiralty alive with protest action, he walks fast, talks almost too quickly to catch his words, and hardly has time to chat at all.

The driven 15-year-old can claim credit for an anti-national-education message that is now all over the city. From a YouTube video showing his eloquent engagement with reporters, to mass rallies organised by a group he co-founded, he has grown in stature beyond his years, becoming an icon in the snowballing movement against the classes.

Joshua, a Form Five pupil at United Christian College (Kowloon East), set up Scholarism - an activist group for secondary school pupils - with his schoolmate Ivan Lam Long-yin, 18, in June last year because they were concerned about the government's plan to introduce the national education curriculum.

He said he believed that by gathering small efforts, it was possible to take on power, quoting Japanese author Haruki Murakami: "If there is a hard, high wall and an egg breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg."

In the last two months, as national education increasingly hit a raw nerve with Hongkongers, the boy impressed many with his clear mind, passion and knowledge of social issues and protest organisation. His Facebook page had attracted more than 100,000 "likes" as of yesterday, way more than the 19,000 on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's page.

Cutting a skinny figure with black-rimmed glasses, Joshua prompted a big round of applause every time he took to the stage during the 10-day siege of the government headquarters.

But for all the attention he had generated, Joshua said he had no intention of becoming "a hero".

He recognised that some people equated Scholarism with him. "I don't like that," he was quoted as telling various Chinese-language newspapers. "If a mass movement turns into worshipping a particular person, that's a great problem."

His burgeoning popularity has spawned another unwelcome consequence - scrutiny from Beijing. He suspected his phone went under monitoring by mainland authorities after the July 1 protest march this year, as it began emitting echoes. Also, Scholarism's account on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblogging service, was frozen. Joshua admitted being scared but said he would continue to do what he thought was right.

The child of a middle-class Christian family, he said his father started taking him to visit the poor and the downtrodden when he was six or seven.

"He told me that I should care for the abandoned in the city. They had not heard of the gospel, and were living solitary and hard lives," he wrote in a blog last year. His upbringing made him wonder whether anything could be changed, he said.

Social movements first caught his eye in 2009, when activists opposed the government's plan to construct a high-speed cross-border railway link. Back then, he seldom read the newspapers, he said, but because the activists used the internet a lot to discuss and promote their cause, his interest in social issues grew.

The "five-constituency referendum" - which saw one lawmaker in each of the five geographical constituencies resign in order to trigger a citywide by-election - further inflamed his passion. Joshua, in support of the move, started writing and debating with other internet users. His interests extended to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen military crackdown, July 1 annual handover rally and minimum wage.

"I am fortunate to have made friends with many social-movement activists and people in the political sector through this," he said. "They have guided me through many debates and provided me with information."

It has not always been smooth sailing, however. Few know that Scholarism ran up against multiple obstacles in its early days. Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, another core member, recently described how they learned the ropes as they went along.

"In the beginning, Wong told us to distribute leaflets by walking among the crowds in Mong Kok. We were often scolded by angry pedestrians and people talking on the phone, saying we were obstructing their way," Cheung said. "But we were all learning."