“Oh, shit.” Joshua Wong, Hong Kong’s best-known democracy campaigner, is reeling. Tossed into the amber sky, he spins uncontrollably before landing, arms splayed, in a downtown car park. Regathering his strength, he hurls his katana sword at his assailant, who is poised to strike again.
For the past ten years Wong has been confronting the Chinese Communist Party as it slowly tightens control over Hong Kong. Today he is locked in a different kind of struggle – a fight between the giant robots of “Gundam Versus”, a video game. A jet pack propels Wong’s chosen machine above the empty highways of a virtual Hong Kong; the ferries plying Victoria Harbour have been replaced by a hulking military seaplane and the city’s glittering skyscrapers are collapsing under the onslaught of laser blasts. It is no surprise that among the many backdrops the game offers, Wong has chosen Hong Kong as his battlefield. At 23, he has spent much of his life fighting to preserve the autonomy of a liberal city in an increasingly illiberal country.
In 2014 Wong became the youthful face of the “Umbrella Movement” when thousands of Hong Kongers camped in the streets for 79 days, demanding the right for the territory to elect its own leader. The sit-in eventually dwindled and Wong ended up in jail. Last summer he found himself caught up in political tumult again as a new type of protest movement brought Hong Kong to the brink: a proposal to amend an extradition law triggered a wave of demonstrations that turned into a wider and more prolonged protest.
Wong lives and breathes politics – even in his choice of video game. After his release from prison in 2017, he posted a picture of himself playing “Gundam Versus”, which came out while he was inside, alongside a caption, “Let’s battle”. “Gundam Versus” is part of a sprawling franchise that began 40 years ago in Japan, with animations, comics, games and merchandise featuring giant humanoid robots controlled by human pilots. The series is a natural touchstone for Wong and his fellow campaigners: it is spread across dozens of planets and multiple possible futures; each setting has an intricate political backstory.
Wong is equally at home playing video games and discussing Hong Kong’s ongoing battles. He just can’t do both at the same time. “I need to...concentrate,” he pleads, as we riddle him with questions and the enemy robot blasts him with lasers. Our conversation makes way for the frenetic tapping of controls. Some combination of finger- and thumb-work allows his robot to throw a mace into his opponent’s midriff, then wrench it out again. “Yes!” he cries. Finally, with only 1 second left on the clock, his enemy explodes and Wong exhales.
Wong is not someone who easily accepts defeat. He was born in October 1996, less than a year before Hong Kong returned to China after 150 years of British colonial rule. His generation has little memory of a time before Chinese rule, yet it has nevertheless proved increasingly resistant to its Communist Party overlords.
He describes his schoolboy self as a dokuo, a Japanese term for a nerdy kid more interested in video games than girls. But Wong had a sense of mission, too. His Protestant parents had a strong social conscience: his mother marched against a proposed security law in 2003; he and his father visited poor families together. In 2011, when the Hong Kong government sought to introduce pro-Communist propaganda in schools through “patriotic” education, Wong founded Scholarism, a campaign group that quickly gathered popular momentum. After the government capitulated (classes became optional), the 14-year-old Wong achieved rock-star status. So, when protests erupted in 2014, Wong was a natural leader. Yet the Umbrella Movement ultimately failed: Hong Kongers achieved no greater representation and the student movement splintered.
Video games offer cleaner victories. But Gundam’s appeal is about more than the drama of battle. Wong appreciates the “more boring” storylines about interplanetary diplomacy. His current favourite iteration of the Gundam cartoons “Iron-Blooded Orphans” begins on Mars, where a 300-year-old colony is seeking independence from Earth. The corrupt adult leaders force children to fight. The youngsters are “soldiers born out of the Earth sphere’s oppressive rule,” explains the fictional leader of the Mars independence movement: “They embody the problems burdening each one of us.” Although Wong denies that he wants Hong Kong to be independent – he argues for greater autonomy and democracy – the parallels are clear. He is amused by the story’s conclusion: the heroes are defeated, but the vanquishing regime adopts democratic reform anyway.
For someone who appeared on the cover of Time magazine at the age of 17 Wong seems remarkably grounded. As he speaks he underlines his points with a gentle wave of the PlayStation controller, the gestures of a pedagogue not a demagogue. His glasses frames are thinner than in his teenage years, his hair shorter and swept back from his forehead. Casual inspection suggests that Wong, the teen firebrand known for his bowl haircut, now uses a little product to keep his forelocks spiky. He sees his fame as a duty rather than an identity: it helps to amplify his dissent and draw attention to Hong Kong.
During a break in the gaming, he reaches for a slice of pizza, folding his surgical mask into a neat plastic pouch. Last year Hong Kong’s leaders banned face masks to discourage unsanctioned protests, so Wong is enjoying the irony that everyone is now wearing masks again to slow the spread of coronavirus. The outbreak of covid-19 in Hong Kong has interrupted the popular demonstrations, which saw unusual levels of violence both by demonstrators and Hong Kong police. Some commentators have criticised Wong for failing to condemn violent acts by demonstrators.
Wong mentions visiting several protesters on remand who attacked police and made petrol bombs. After taking a swing at an enemy robot, Wong pauses the on-screen carnage to discuss the off-screen violence. He himself would never resort to such lengths. “Of course, I can’t,” he says. But he won’t publicly denounce such acts either. “I understand the root cause,” he says. “It’s the desperation of the millennials who are even younger than me.”
As covid-19 has spread, protesters have found new ways to resist Chinese rule. Since mass gatherings in the flesh are no longer possible, video games now act as a form of virtual protest. In a new iteration of the game “Animal Crossing”, Hong Kongers have been dressing avatars in gas masks or decorating fictional islands with the kind of anti-government art that used to plaster Hong Kong’s streets. Wong downloaded the game two days before our interview. A few days later China’s government blocked copies from being bought online on the mainland.
After piling up some wins, Wong doesn’t seem to mind when he eventually loses to the computer. His decapitated mobile suit hangs in mid-air, its circuits fizzing and crackling. Wong’s political career is also in need of some repair and retooling. His style of megaphone evangelism has gone out of fashion – last summer’s protests consciously denied any individual a pulpit. Though he has a sharper look, his role is less sharply defined.
In his recent book, “Unfree Speech”, Wong describes himself as a “global influencer”. Yet he can’t travel abroad without the court’s permission. He has a curfew and must visit a police station twice a week. His university studies have stalled and his criminal record limits his job prospects. He can’t run for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in September because of his conviction. The political party he founded may not be able to field any candidates because the government sees its call for “self-determination” as an unconstitutional step towards independence. The timing of the election in September is awkward anyway, jokes Wong, since campaigning will clash with the release of a new Gundam game.
As conversation moves to the future, Wong hands over the controls, kindly resetting the difficulty level to “easy” and giving us some tips.
“Press L1,” he says. “It’s easy. L1!”
“Which one’s L1?”
“That one. Oh! Wow! Ha, ha!” he laughs as the on-screen enemy succumbs to a frenzied pressing of the elusive L1 (which, it turns out, triggers some kind of tracking weapon).
Wong knows that his battles will persist – and that victory poses dangers too. He uses “Iron-Blooded Orphans” as an example to warn activist friends of the challenges they’ll face even if their cause eventually prevails. The youngsters on Mars win many battles but when they achieve power they struggle with how to administer their affairs: “There’s a lot of internal conflict.”
His movement will face similar dilemmas if it ever achieves its aims. “A lot of people imagine that democratic reform…means ‘win back the system’ and that’s all.” But there is no guarantee Hong Kong would escape the tensions the Martians faced. Paradoxically, it’s in these notes of caution that Wong’s belief in the movement comes through most clearly. To more world-weary observers, full democracy in Hong Kong seems a remote prospect. Only an implacable optimist – and a young one at that – could worry about what might follow. It takes a special kind of faith to fret about the milk curdling in the promised land. When you get knocked down in one game, you just have to start another.•
Caroline Carter is The Economist’s deputy Asia news editor and Simon Cox is The Economist’s emerging markets editor