By Holly Reeves
“Facebook was my library,” says Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong, when asked about how he transformed from a pretty average kid “that played computer games”, to a street activist and thorn in the side of Beijing.
He says social media is setting a fire under young people across South East Asia, and as networks expand, new ideas are spreading – leaving governments feeling the slow burn of a digital generation with a passion for change.
Two among them who are receiving the most attention, from supporters and police forces alike, are Wong and Singapore’s Amos Yee – though for rather different reasons.
Wong is the scholar of the pair. He came to prominence at 17 and quickly became an international sensation for his forceful speeches calling for democracy, during the “Umbrella Movement” pushing for greater democracy in Hong Kong. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine. He even had to call a press conference about his university exam scores.
He leads “Demosisto,” a political party he created. In his drive to emancipate Hong Kong, he reminds people that although they “may think young people are still in the learning process, [and] they are not capable of being involved in public discussion or politics. I let them know you need to respect the youth.” And on an important note he doesn’t think this is an old versus young debate.
“Discussing the roadmap or strategy to achieve democracy in Hong Kong is not really related to generational diversity.” He says, “We gain more support in the young generation. But I don’t think the way for us to continue is to struggle and argue between the two generations. It is: how can we link up the two generations on the same agenda?”
His latest cause celebre is to lower the age of candidates for office from 21 to 18; neatly qualifying himself in the process. He’s also thinking very long-term – specifically to 2047, when Hong Kong will legally and fully become a part of China. He believes activists should prepare for that date by focusing on today’s teens, who will be the city’s leaders then.
He is developing a sophisticated arsenal of arguments rooted in Hong Kong’s history and seeking ideas for how the island can expand its international space. He feels confident, too, about the growing popular discourse within Hong Kong over independence and self-determination.
“Street activism is not enough if we want to fight for a better future,” he says. “We have to enter the system, create a political party and shape the political agenda, in order to drive forward our movement for self-determination.”
On the other side, Amos Yee is less polished, less academic, but effective in creating a large online following. His videos, which specialise in refuting religion by using its own teachings (via the Bible or the Quran) via his Brain and Butter YouTube channel, has clocked up over 38,000 subscribers and regularly receive over a quarter of a million views per video.
Yee claims he is being targeted by the government as a political threat because he is not afraid to tell the truth. The action for which he is most well known, and for which he was sent to jail, is the eight-minute rant he posted following the death Lee Kuan Yew.
In it he likened Lee to Jesus Christ, and criticised Christians in general, a serious crime in a country which has seen race riots in the past and takes a zero-tolerance approach towards insults of race and religion.
“Why hasn’t anyone said, ‘yeah, the guy is dead?’” Yee asks in the video. “Everyone is afraid that if they say something like that, they might get into trouble… but I’m not afraid.”
In his videos, sporting bushy hair and big glasses, Yee critiques Singaporean society, reviews movies and books, and discusses life as a teenager. He speaks eloquently but with manic speed, zipping between impassioned pleas, statistics, and creative obscenities.
More lately, however, Yee’s antics have taken a more bizarre turn. Online videos he uploaded in April and May this year include one in which he desecrated a copy of the Quran. He has been taken to court again, this time with possibly far more serious consequences.
Leading the pack
Figures like Joshua Wong are far from the only voices fighting to be heard.
At the end of last year Japanese student protesters filled Tokyo’s government district in what experts described as the country’s most forceful student protests in decades. And resurgent activist groups are making themselves heard on issues where young people would traditionally be seen and not heard, such as the restart of nuclear reactors. “Things were just so out of balance,” said one, “I felt I had to do something to stop it.”
And following the seizure of power in Thailand by the military, student activists adopted the three-fingered salute used in Hollywood blockbuster, The Hunger Games, as an act of protest. The military-imposed government banned the gesture. Meanwhile in the Philippines, a 19-year-old student was arrested for unfurling a political poster and shouting anti-corruption slogans during a presidential speech – security guards used his banner as a gag.
The young activists mentioned here have all shown bravery in speaking out when the dominant ideologies of their culture dictate that they be seen and not heard. With the spectre of Tiananmen looming in background, the youth of Hong Kong fought a gruelling four month battle against their government and its backers in Beijing.
While other opposition groups in Thailand are cowed by the most repressive regime the kingdom has seen in decades, a small handful of students have stood up as a lone voice for democracy.
Despite cultural constraints, young people will always try to right the societal wrongs of their elders. It seems almost a natural cycle of life – an evolutionary process perhaps – which ultimately no construct or regime can suppress. The young people involved show maturity beyond their years in standing up for the leaders of the future, sadly the leaders of today are sometimes not as mature in their response.