By Eric Card
Northwest Asian Weekly
“I want to know, where are the adults? No matter what the price, we can’t dump this on the next generation. This generation must complete our mission!” These are the rallying cries of Joshua Wong as he talks to a crowd of protesters he is leading. While small, skinny, and unassuming in appearance, the passion and conviction behind his message is anything but. “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower” is the story of an unlikely 14-year-old that creates a grassroots resistance organization called the Scholarism.
The group, formed in 2012, was forged to fight the Hong Kong government’s policy to introduce National Education, a propaganda curriculum that strongly encourages students to show loyalty to the state of China. During one of the group’s protests, Wong speaks to reporters to explain the Scholarism’s cause, “We demand the government withdraw National Education. We can’t have Communist China dictating what is taught in Hong Kong schools.” He refers to the policy as “brainwashing curriculum.”
To give some background and context behind the rise of this resistance, the documentary succinctly reviews the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China. While the people of Hong Kong worried over its autonomy, the film explains that China promised Hong Kong freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to elect their own leader in the future, for the time being, under the principle of “one country, two systems.” The idea was that Hong Kong would retain the same degree of autonomy and keep its economic and social systems in place for the next 50 years.
The documentary also goes over the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which involved large student-led demonstrations in Beijing fighting for government reform. Due to the unrest and growing resistance, the Chinese government infamously sent in military forces, which ended in the massacre of many protesters.
These quick historical lessons help to reveal the distrust and contempt that the people of Hong Kong have towards China’s intentions and that China is not afraid to get its hands dirty when it comes to suppressing dissenters.
As we see CY Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive who was appointed by the Chinese government, brush off Wong’s criticisms and demands in regards to National Education, we see the group’s resolve intensify. This culminates in a sit-in protest that gains momentum and develops into something that goes beyond anyone’s expectations, one that Wong calls “a miracle.”
While the protest shows the power of social movement, Scholarism activist Agnes Chow states that this is one battle, not the whole war. That war comes in the form of the fight for universal suffrage for Hong Kong. The goal is to bring true democracy by having the people of Hong Kong vote in its leaders, instead of the Chinese government selecting vetted candidates.
Under the appointment of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, we see the Chinese slowly creep in and invade Hong Kong’s independence. As one interviewee puts it, “What’s happening under Xi Jinping is a sort of one country, two systems, one country, 1.9 systems, one country, 1.8 systems.” The sense of urgency is palpable. Wong and the Scholarism join law professor Benny Tai’s Occupy Central movement for universal suffrage.
The pacing of the film is relentless. The ups and downs experienced by Wong and the protesters are dramatic and at times exhausting. The stakes are constantly being raised. The documentary is told through a series of footage from media outlets, social media, videos recorded on cellphones, and shots from the documentary itself. It feels like you are there, experiencing the range of emotions that the subjects in the film feel: optimistic, anxious, fearful, inspired, frustrated, and everything in between.
If there is one aspect that makes “Joshua” seem feeble, it’s that the film cuts out too much fat. There’s a lot that happens and is explained in its 78-minute runtime. While the storytelling is efficient and tight, there’s a feeling that we don’t get the whole picture when contextualizing the protests shown in the film.
The colonization of Hong Kong and its history of independence are glossed over and its subsequent relationship dynamics with Communist China is all described in a manner of minutes, explaining just enough for the viewer to know what’s going on in the film. There’s a lot to chew on, and too often, the transitions feel rushed and there’s little room to breathe or reflect.
Conceivably, this is also the film’s strength, as the story doesn’t get bogged down by details. The film clearly wants to focus on the passion, determination, and effectiveness behind Wong’s objectives. The pacing lends to that, and the drama and intensity is certainly there. “Joshua” and its tale of social movement is an incredibly relevant subject, and the scale of their fight is expressed in powerful ways.
Wong and his movement’s confrontation with the Chinese government are described as David vs. Goliath or the Jedi facing off with Darth Vader. The most potent analogy is an interviewee that views Wong as the story of Joan of Arc, “The youngster who can see the world clearly, and is not as jaded as adults, comes into a complicated adult conflict and clarifies. Wong fits that template. He is taking on literally the largest country in the world.”
Perhaps what makes Wong such an engaging figure is that he is not only fearless, but selfless. He knows it’s dangerous to be an activist in Hong Kong. But he loves Hong Kong and wants it to maintain its identity, not just for his generation, but for the next one, and the one after that. He is not driven by fame, but by something innate. A commentator concisely poses Wong’s plight, “Joshua Wong did not do it as a particular political campaign against anything. He was doing it because it was the right thing to do. There was a sense of innocence that actually made people identify with it. That innocence also made the parent’s generation somewhat ashamed that they had to leave these young kids to be fighting out there for this.”
So where are the adults? It doesn’t matter now. Wong, his group, his generation have a mission to complete. The time is now.
“Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower” is available for streaming on Netflix.
Eric Card can be reached at email@example.com.