Joshua Wong looks like any other university student in Hong Kong. Wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, the young man worries about the dying battery on his Samsung phone while sipping a cappuccino in a Kowloon café.
The 17-year-old freshman badly needs his phone to stay on. As activists have challenged Beijing over its controversial plan for political reform in Hong Kong, he has become one of the leading voices of his generation advocating democratic reform.
Since founding a student movement called Scholarism in 2011 when he was 14, he has published a book called I am not a Hero, hosts a radio programme, writes a column, and does interviews – all of which drain his time and his phone power.
Even though critics agree that China will not reverse course by allowing critics of Beijing to run for chief executive of Hong Kong, Mr Wong says students in the former British colony should continue to fight for greater rights.
“Political reform is the core problem for every issue,” says Mr Wong. “Everyone knows that under the Chinese Communist party, there is a lack of possibility to fight [for] true universal suffrage in the end . . . but students should stand on the front line in every century.”
Students across Hong Kong on Monday launched a weeklong civil disobedience campaign to draw more attention to the democracy battle. China last month agreed to introduce universal suffrage – one person, one vote – for the election of chief executive, the top political job in the territory. But the plan includes conditions that essentially make it impossible for a pro-democracy campaigner to get on the ballot.
Mr Wong does not expect Beijing to change its mind and allow ordinary people to pick candidates for chief executive, saying Chinese president Xi Jinping “will not give universal suffrage to Hong Kong citizens”. But he urges his peers to continue the cause.
“We fight for our goal without analysing the possibility of success,” says Mr Wong. “If . . . you have to consider the possibility to reach the goal, you should not involve [yourself] in the social movement or student movement.”
Fighting the Chinese government and the pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong is a Sisyphean struggle but Mr Wong has won before – in a high-profile protest that catapulted the young man to fame.
In 2012 he became the public face of a mass campaign against a Hong Kong government plan to introduce “ national education”, a patriotic curriculum that critics said was an effort to brainwash local people about the Communist party. The movement forced CY Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to back down.
“It is not common for a 15-year-old student to lead the movement of civil disobedience,” says Mr Wong confidently, before adding that he has just met a 12-year-old who wants to join his group. “Only in Hong Kong . . . can such a situation occur. In America or England, no one expects a 12-year-old to join a strike.”
His 2012 campaign rallied more than 100,000 people to demonstrate on the streets of Hong Kong and staged an occupation outside government headquarters that included some hunger protests. During the height of the stand-off, Mr Wong had a widely publicised debate with Mr Leung, where the media-savvy student refused to shake his hand to avoid the impression that he had been co-opted.
“He sounds like a sound recorder and always responds with the same wording,” Mr Wong says of Mr Leung, adding that he has no interest in meeting Xi Jinping to discuss the current political battle.
Castigated by Chinese media with sobriquets such as “buffoon”, he says his idol is Wang Dan, one of the student leaders during the Tiananmen Square protests. But Mr Wong says Scholarism, now a group of 300 high-school and university students, does not want the kind of violent outcome that occurred in Beijing in 1989.
“If the soldiers come, we would all go back home . . . we don’t want to see blood,” says Mr Wong.
While he vows to continue his fight, he rues the pressures of his role. He describes himself as a normal kid who grew up playing Gameboy and watching television. In between yawns, he says he spends 18 hours a day on his studies and political activities. Asked how he spends his leisure time, he half jokes, “sleep and sleep”.
“Only students can bear such a burden. It’s really tiring,” he says, before picking up his now-charged phone to arrange his political meetings for later in the day.
Additional reporting by Julie Zhu
Get alerts on Hong Kong when a new story is published