When Xi Jinping came to power in his late 50s, Joshua Wong was only a 16-year-old schoolboy.
In 2012, the newly-appointed Chinese President didn’t dismiss the teen activist — known as a “tenderfoot in Hong Kong politics” — who was young, disobedient and influential.
The year was critical in the political trajectories of both leaders, but it was Mr Wong who first made a splash.
In 2012, Mr Wong convened over 100,000 people on the street of Hong Kong, rallying against a controversial Beijing-imposed patriotic curriculum, months before Mr Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign unfurled across China.
Both of these events were set against the backdrop of Mr Xi’s nationalist “Chinese Dream”, which is to make the country proud, powerful, and ambitious in its return as a global power.
In the next eight years, Mr Wong and Mr Xi could have found common ground — but they became enemies.
Protesters inspired by Mr Wong gave up on seeking to explain their demands to Mr Xi’s central Government, instead launching strategic pro-democracy movements.
Protests flared in 2014 and 2019 as demonstrators rallied against what they saw as a dilution of the city’s autonomy from Beijing.
The territory was handed back from Britain to China in 1997 under a One Country, Two Systems framework, which promised “Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years”, until 2047.
To date, there have been more than 10,000 demonstrations in the city since 2012, according to Hong Kong Police Force data.
To stamp out such large-scale opposition, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in July, which has significantly curtailed the liberties of Hongkongers.
On Wednesday, the now-24-year-old activist was sentenced to more than a year in prison for inciting and organising protesters who besieged Hong Kong police headquarters last year, as he pled guilty to charges alongside Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam.
Political commentators warn targeting the activists, who still face other charges under the sweeping law, is a tactic to silence other protesters.
But for some of Mr Wong’s supporters, his imprisonment is, ironically, a promising step for their vision of Hong Kong — just not in the way you may expect.
Hong Kong’s ‘mutually assured destruction’
In many news videos since last year, “lam chau”, a Cantonese slogan, has been broadcast around the world.
In the context of the pro-democracy movement, the slogan refers to Hong Kong’s “mutually assured destruction”, where Beijing and the Hong Kong Government’s targeting of protest leaders inflicts damage to the city’s international standing.
This has sometimes resulted in sanctions on its political elite, while its sizeable economy has taken a plunge.
The city’s GDP decreased by 3.4 per cent in real terms in the third quarter of 2020 from a year earlier, due to the decline of both domestic and external demand, according to the city’s Census and Statistics Department’s report.
It came off the back of the city’s lowest growth rates in a decade, which were attributed to the city’s rolling unrest.
COVID-19 no doubt played a role in this year’s economic slump, but regardless, protesters embraced the recession, believing the demise of Hong Kong’s status as a financial centre could be a blow to mainland China’s economy.
For Mr Wong’s supporters, “lam chau” also instils the philosophy of political martyrdom.
Although no protester wants to be jailed, the ruling reinforced perceptions of Beijing’s crackdown of dissent and erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Protesters say a leader’s sacrifice for the movement is not a ruthless game, but a compassionate battle to perish together with the Chinese Communist Party amid an overall sense of despair.
They say their actions are rooted in a noble effort to bring down Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s Government, which they see as the CCP’s puppet.
And that’s why they say they have no choice but to turn to more radical forms of protest.
But this may ultimately be a futile effort, as the demise of Hong Kong is unlikely to damage Mr Xi’s Chinese Dream — a much larger political project that is operating whether or not Hong Kong consents.
Seeking help from Western countries
While Mr Wong was arrested in August, many of his fellow activists — including Nathan Law and Sunny Cheung — fled overseas and have lobbied Western politicians to pressure Mr Xi’s authoritarian regime.
Growing up in a former British colony and an international city, Hong Kong’s elite activists not only have good English-language skills, but also are familiar with British common law, which means they could be more adept at dealing with Western leaders than Beijing’s.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the pro-democracy movement was welcomed and supported by global Hong Kong diasporas.
The movement promoted an extensive network for elites to visit countries including Australia, the UK and the US to garner support.
By utilising the West’s concerns about China’s growing influence around the world, the students’ call for democracy and human rights resonated with some politicians.
They laid the groundwork for the United States to pass two successive bills on Hong Kong’s human rights and autonomy, the denouncement of Beijing’s National Security Law by the Five Eyes intelligence network, and the creation of safe havens and special visas for Hong Kong passport holders in Australia and the UK.
However, protesters understood that seeking help from foreign governments can only do so much, because demands from Beijing’s rivals have never been accepted by President Xi.
And because China’s aggressive “wolf-warrior diplomacy” incites more reaction from the West, more repression and prosecution may follow — the National Security Law is a great example.
But many ordinary Hongkongers wonder if they will be listened to by any government, or are just being used as a pawn in a grand geopolitical tussle with China.
Still, demonstrators are holding their ground, saying the desire for freedom and the rule of law will not be extinguished.
But for China, it’s a different story
For Mr Wong’s fellow activist Agnes Chow, it is the first time she’s been behind bars, but it might not be her last — as she is also facing multiple charges under the National Security Law.
On the mainland, Hong Kong’s activists were widely shamed, condemned and accused of being “traitors”. The hashtag about their sentencing appeared in more than 5,000 posts on Chinese social media platform Weibo, racking up more than 130 million views since last night.
State-owned media have also been calling them separatists who support Hong Kong’s independence, which remains unacceptable in many Chinese mainlanders’ eyes.
As the street protests died down during COVID-19, Hongkongers realised that under Xi Jinping’s rule, mainland China would not embrace the liberty that Hong Kong had; rather, Hong Kong would become more like the mainland.
Xi Jinping has increasingly inflamed nationalist sentiments in China, as a growing number of Chinese people have viewed the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong as a crime challenging the country’s stability and sovereignty — despite activists repeatedly denying those claims.
The act of imprisoning the young activists can serve both sides — for pro-democracy Hongkongers, it’s a rallying cry against repression.
For Beijing, it’s a way to flaunt their control over internal affairs, convincing its citizens that international criticism is unacceptable interference and an affront to their sovereignty.
With the two territories living on opposite sides of a shared river, it seems the divide will only intensify.