Joshua Wong demonstrates leadership qualities in Hong Kong’s political struggles

Umbrella MovementThis week [August 2nd, 2015] Western media reported further rumbles of protest from Hong Kong against the proposed electoral system being introduced from mainland China. Hong Kong’s student activist Joshua Wong examines the impact of The Umbrella Movement, and shows characteristics associated with other political revolutionaries

Last year [September-December 2014] a series of protests broke out against proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system. The fundamental objection was to what was seen as Government control over acceptance of candidates for Hong Kong elections. Earlier student activist groups coalesced into a wider group which became known as The Umbrella Movement. The protests against a governing power is reminiscent of those in Singapore as it negotiated its liberation from Malaysia fifty years ago.

Hong Kong and Singapore compared

It is not uncommon to hear Singaporeans compare their nation state to Hong Kong. Both Singapore and Hong Kong advanced economically and energetically in the latter half of the twentieth century though seizing opportunities in the emerging world of information technology. Both have developed a political system after a period as tiny cogs within the colonial machine that was the mighty British Empire.

Singapore acknowledges the influence of founding father Lee Kwan Yew who died earlier this year. Margaret Thatcher said in her autobiography that she told Lee that if he had stayed in the land of his ancestors, ‘China might have found its way to Capitalism twenty years earlier’.

One of Lee’s skills was influencing the anti-Government protests while avoiding unleashing the wrath of the ruling power. The same challenge now faces protest leaders in establishing Hong Kong’s emerging relationship with China within the ‘One country, two systems‘ arrangement negotiated to last until 2047.

Taking the long view

Wong has at least one characteristic which was one of President Yew’s leadership strengths. He takes the long view of change.

This was in evidence when he recently talked to the BBC’s Juliana Liu about the future he sees for the Umbrella Movement.

“First, we did not have any clear goal or roadmap or route for democracy. We did not deliver the message to the general Hong Kong public. Secondly, not enough people were willing to pay the price by protesting. We did not have enough bargaining power with the Chinese authorities. Say, for example, during the Umbrella Movement, if two million Hong Kong people had occupied the streets, along with labour strikes, and if this had continued for more than two months, we would have had enough bargaining power.”

He says he has not been changed by the experience. His priority now is to finish his studies – he is studying politics and public administration at a local university – and plans on getting a job after graduation, though he isn’t sure what kind yet.

But Mr Wong is looking far ahead. He wants to rectify the mistake of not presenting a viable plan to the public. He says that by 2030 the democracy movement needs to present a clear roadmap spelling out how it can achieve a legally binding referendum on the city’s future.

When asked whether he is planning another civil disobedience movement, Mr Wong says not for a few years.

“The power that we can mobilise on the street has already reached its maximum during the Umbrella Movement. Maybe in 10 years, we’ll be able to mobilise something much larger. But within these three to four years, we need to take a rest.”

Lessons for leaders

What lessons are there for leaders in Wong’s experiences and his reflections on them?

In what ways might Wong be considered a charismatic leader?

In what ways might the processes be seen as involving a form of distributed leadership?


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