The Defenders

Joshua Wong

“We long to have a home where civil freedoms are respected, where our children will not be subject to mass surveillance, abuse of human rights, political censorship and mass incarceration.”

Joshua Wong was born in Hong Kong on October 13, 1996. His mother helped him to overcome dyslexia and succeed academically. His father helped raise his social awareness by taking him to visit the underprivileged when he was a child and by actively participating in local politics.

When Joshua was less than a year old, in July 1997, the British government transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to the Chinese government, ending 156 years of British colonial rule. As a British-run territory, Hong Kong had enjoyed greater freedom and transparency than mainland China, an authoritarian state controlled by the Communist Party. The Chinese government promised to maintain “one country, two systems,” but over time many of the freedoms Hong Kong residents were used to have been slipping away.

Joshua’s activism began when he was just 14 years old. He demonstrated against plans to build a high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, believing that the project sacrificed the interests of the common people to a small minority of economic elites. Activists also raised concerns about the cost of the project, noise pollution, and customs and border control complications. Ultimately, protestors were unsuccessful in stopping the development of the rail link.

Undeterred, Joshua helped to create a pro-democracy student group called Scholarism two years later. The group started with simple tactics and a simple goal: distributing leaflets denouncing the Communist Party’s efforts to replace the existing curriculum with a new one called “Moral and National Education.” The new curriculum was viewed as pro-China brainwashing. Over time, the group’s tactics evolved, and it grew in size and influence. In August 2012, activists occupied a park below government officesa few went on a hunger strike. Scholarism also organized large public demonstrations. In September 2012, over 100,000 supporters rallied outside government offices. Shortly thereafter, the government retracted its plans to introduce "Moral and National “Education" as a compulsory subject in schools.

Two years later, Joshua became a leader of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution, which emerged to protest a decision made by China that would restrict elections in Hong Kong to a list of candidates pre-approved by the Chinese government. Joshua led protestors in occupying a forecourt outside government offices. He was subsequently arrested for forcible entry to government premises, disorderly conduct, and unlawful assembly. His arrest, along with more than 60 fellow protestors, galvanized demonstrators. Tens of thousands of people camped in the streets and demanded the right to fully free elections.

In 2016, after Scholarism disbanded, Joshua worked with other student leaders to establish a new political party, Demosistō. The party advocates for a referendum in 2047 to determine Hong Kong’s sovereignty. That is the year that laws put in place during the transition of power from the United Kingdom to mainland China are set to expire.

Joshua was jailed again in 2017 and 2019 for his participation in the Umbrella Revolution. After a series of appeals, he was released from jail in time to join the 2019 protests against a controversial bill that would allow suspects arrested in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. The bill was eventually scrapped, but efforts to defend democracy and human rights in Hong Kong continue.


In America, we are privileged to live in a democracy. Our Constitution guarantees citizens a wide range of political rights, including the right to participate in free and fair elections. Among our other political rights are the right to a fair trial, due process, freedom of association, the right to assemble, and the right to petition.

When sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred to China in 1997, a principal was established that called for “one country, two systems.” This principal is protected in a document called the Basic Law, which serves as Hong Kong’s de facto constitution. The Basic Law protects freedom of assembly and freedom of speech and sets out the structure for governance of the territory. Hong Kong is ruled by a Chief Executive who is responsible for implementing the Basic Law. It also has a semi-representative legislature and an independent judiciary.

As Joshua Wong’s story shows, and as other human rights defenders report, the Hong Kong government is taking steps to restrict the fundamental rights guaranteed to citizens. In addition to pro-democracy figures being prosecuted and jailed, they are being denied the right to run for elected office. The Hong Kong and mainland Chinese authorities have gone after academics for expressing unfavorable opinions and interfered with academic freedoms by imposing views favored by the Chinese government on schools and textbook publishers. They have also proposed a law that would criminalize “insults” to China’s national anthem that, if passed, would infringe on citizens’ freedom of speech. Additional threats to freedom of speech have come in the form of abductions of booksellers associated with a publishing house known for printing books critical of Chinese leaders.


  • The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Read about an international human rights treaty that provides a range of protections for civil and political rights.
  • Protect the rights of people in Hong Kong: Write to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and call on her to respect and protect citizens’ political rights.
  • Call for Investigation of Hong Kong Police: Join over 750,000 people who have signed a petition calling on the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an intergovernmental organization providing a variety of dispute resolution services, to formally investigate Hong Kong police for unlawful use of force against citizens.


Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.