Why Thais Stand With Joshua Wong

On November 23, Joshua Wong pled guilty to organizing and inciting an unauthorized assembly near the police headquarters in Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. He is remanded in custody, awaiting a December 2nd sentence that could see him and two other activists facing up to three years in jail.

“What we are doing now is to explain the value of freedom to the world,” Wong announced outside the court, as he plead guilty to two of three charges (inciting and organizing illegal assembly, but not knowingly taking part in an unauthorized assembly). Fellow Demosistō organizer, Agnes Chow, 23, pled guilty to two charges. Former Demosistō chairman Ivan Lam, 26, pled guilty to one charge.

Already, the Milk Tea Alliance has expressed its solidarity with Wong. #StandWithJoshuaWong began trending on Thai Twitter following the announcement of Wong’s plea. Thai tweeters have highlighted Wong’s solidarity with the Thai pro-democracy cause. One user, @mayomchit, wrote: “Do not underestimate our #MilkTeaAlliance You stand with Thailand all along and now you will get a return.”

The story of Joshua Wong has been one of a persistent underdog, almost futile in his search for a freedom that is quickly slipping away from Hong Kong’s grasp. But the power and purity of this resistance has not been lost on the Milk Tea Alliance, themselves underdogs against the growing power of China.

Joshua Wong’s Thai Ties

“Since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, Joshua has evolved from a street protest leader into a figurehead of pro-democracy Hong Kongers’ international lobbying efforts,” says Wilfred Chan, who covers Hong Kong for The Nation.

Ever since his rise to fame as leader of Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, Wong has been uniquely international in his outlook and approach to democracy promotion.

Since 2015, he has become the movement’s de-facto international representative. In November 2016, Wong met with members of the United States Congress and the Senate in Washington D.C., lobbying for the introduction of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. In February 2017 he was in London, meeting British lawmakers and speaking at events in an attempt to raise awareness for Britain’s former colony.

But a turning point in his internationalism came in Bangkok, Thailand.

In October 2016, Wong was detained after landing at Suvarnabhumi to speak at an event at Chulalongkorn university organized by Thai student activist Netiwit Chotipatpaisal. Wong had no access to his lawyer, or his parents.

“I was afraid I would be the next Gui Minhai (桂敏海), and be kidnapped from Thailand and taken to China,” relayed Wong in an interview with Edward White of The News Lens. Gui was a bookseller who was abducted in Thailand and resurfaced on Chinese state television. On Facebook, Demosistō posted: “Demosistō strongly condemns the Thai government for unreasonably limiting Wong’s freedom and right to entry and requests the immediate release of Wong.”

After 12 hours of detention, Wong was safely deported. The event demonstrated Beijing’s influence in the region and on the Thai government. But the event taught Wong something important: that resisting authoritarianism at home meant resisting it everywhere.

“It is quite ironic; I am holding the passport of Hong Kong SAR, under China, while I use this passport to go to Bangkok, I can’t get any safety or security from China,” he related to White. “It let me learn a lesson about the importance of freedom.”

Wong and the Milk Tea Alliance

In light of his Thai experience, Wong tweeted: “I don’t think I can travel to Thailand for the rest of my life.” But he explained, “The people from two places are facing similar difficulties while fighting for the same goal: that is, democracy and freedom.”

Wong’s understanding of the intertwined futures of Thailand and Hong Kong explains his involvement with the Milk Tea Alliance.

In April this year, Thai, Hong Kong and Taiwanese Twitterites were brought together in a meme war against Chinese ‘wumao’ or keyboard warriors. The self-denigrating humor and advanced memery of Thai internet users won over fans in Hong Kong, who have been closely following Thailand’s 2020 pro-democracy uprising since. There has been no greater advocate for the #MilkTeaAlliance than Joshua Wong.

Wong has tweeted publicly, and in great detail, about Thailand’s pro-democracy protests, highlighting state violence and protesters’ resilience. With the creativity of a seasoned activist, Wong wrote an open letter to tear gas supplier Non-Lethal Technologies, calling on them to suspend the sale of tear gas to the Thai police after a violent crackdown on 17 November. Wong has been instrumental in highlighting remarkable parallels between the two movements, from letting ambulances through thick crowds to the symbolism of the rubber duck.

But the parallels are not always inspiring. They are often heartbreaking. Scenes from Central, Hong Kong of protesters shielding themselves from water cannons with umbrellas have been repeated on the streets of Bangkok. Thai protesters have borrowed hand signs and protective gear from their Hong Kong predecessors to protect them from the clouds of tear gas that have been deployed by the Thai police. Meanwhile, Thai police have also learned from their Hong Kong counterparts, lacing their water cannons with Methylene Blue. Bangkok’s streets, like Hong Kong’s, have been stained with blood and blue.

Thai pro-democracy protesters now share the collective memory of tear gas that has been indelibly marked in the minds of Hong Kong’s own protesters. In a tweet before his court hearing, Wong quoted Brian Leung, a Hong Kong activist, saying “More than language and values we share, what connects all Hongkongers is the pain.”

Wong seems to understand that Thais, too, are connected in that pain. In a tweet on the Thai protests, Wong recalled his own arrest in Suvarnabhumi: “I have always been indebted to their [Thai activists and human rights lawyers] help. It is imperative to devote our concerns in the freedom-fighting battle in Thailand, just as how much they had cared for my advocacy and my safety back then.”

Young people vs. the world

Wong, 24, is part of a phalanx of young pro-democracy advocates that are threatening authoritarian governments across Asia.

Thailand’s own pro-democracy protest leaders are university students: Penguin, Rung, Mike Rayong, Ford Tattep. Bad Student, the organization that has been primarily responsible for demanding education reform at the high school level, counts high schoolers among their organizing and leadership ranks.

Like Wong, they have smelled tear gas. They have been arrested. They have seen the interiors of jail cell walls. Like Wong, they are unafraid for what comes next.

“His arrest has been long expected,” argues Chan. “Any prison term he serves will have no more than a symbolic impact on the movement, which is decentralized and basically leaderless. It could backfire on the authorities by further elevating Joshua’s stature as a prisoner of conscience.”

Wong has highlighted that his potential sentence is far less worrying than what faces over 20 activists, journalists and pro-democracy legislators under Hong Kong’s National Security Law. Wong vows to write from jail, if that is where the Hong Kong courts send him on December 2nd.

For all their resilience, however, we should not forget that they are underdogs. Wong faces the crushing weight of the CCP’s wrath, which grows stronger by the day. Similarly, Thailand’s young pro-democracy protesters face the weight of an establishment that includes the military, the monarchy and the conservative elite. The only resources these young leaders have is the vocal support of ‘the people’ – be they local or international.

There is something tragic, if almost comical, about how imbalanced both fights are.

Thai internet denizens know this. This is why they are training their eyes on Joshua Wong, with the hashtags #SaveJoshuaWong and #SaveHKThreeActivist. Infographics on Joshua Wong and the Demosistō organizers’ arrest have been translated into Thai and shared widely.

Joshua Wong’s service to the Thai pro-democracy movement has been recognized, and it is being returned.

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