This book is a memoir of an extraordinary decade in which Wong went from a nerdy obsession with Marvel comics to a Netflix documentary in which he was characterised as a superhero for democracy. It is also a call to arms to that generation that has known nothing but Instagram and Snapchat – a manifesto to “follow news sites for warning signs of political polarisation”, to use “fact-checking media”, to get out from behind their screens “to attend rallies and help organise election campaigns” and to remember, above all, any effort to preserve democracy “starts with one voice, one flyer and one speech”.
Despite being only 23 years old, Wong has already been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and been in and out of prison three times. The most revealing part of his first book written for an international audience is that based on his journal entries from prison. Several inmates ask him how much he is paid by the CIA and MI6 for his political activism, a popular theory perpetuated by mainland Chinese propaganda despite any lack of evidence. “Most people don’t understand why any sane person would risk prison to do what I do if it wasn’t for the money,” he explains in the book, which traces the origin of his activism from its early days of starting a Facebook page to improve food in his school canteen.
Wong’s sense of mission – his dedication to fighting for HK’s long-term political future – stems substantially from his upbringing as a devout Christian: “God … put me on this world for a reason.” But the book is also careful to reveal Wong’s boyish side. His recollections are conspicuously studded with references to the superhero cartoons and films that seem to dominate his imagination. “I lived the life of Peter Parker,” he recalls of his 2012 campaign. “Like Spider-Man’s alter ego, I went to class during the day and rushed out to fight evil after school.” “If Carrie Lam resembled Darth Vader,” he analogises about the architect of the infamous extradition bill, “the Hong Kong Police Force would be the armour-clad, blaster-brandishing stormtroopers terrorising villagers across the galaxy.”
Casual observers looking at Wong would see a classic 23-year-old geek, with a pudding-bowl haircut and big glasses. He certainly doesn’t look like one of the most prominent political activists in the world, whose campaign of civil disobedience has been a central part of the protest against Beijing’s growing dominance in Hong Kong’s politics. Yet his book Unfree Speech, which combines memoir, prison diary and manifesto, is a powerful insight into the turbulence on the city’s streets that made world headlines for much of 2014 and again in 2019.... Wong’s account of the 2014 movement is poignant, and reminds us how young many of those involved were. “Every day protesters alternated between pushing back the police on the front lines,” Wong writes, “and doing homework.” When he writes about becoming friends with “tattooed street-gang types” in juvenile detention, and joshing them about the new PS4 game console he had waiting at home, you can see his conflict between the political activist and the boy with normal teenage obsessions.
Partly this is about human and political rights, and the encroachment of Chinese authoritarianism on the freedoms guaranteed by the “one country, two systems” arrangement. Partly it is about economics and the surge of money from the mainland that has made Hong Kong unaffordable to many of its people. However, Wong puts his finger on the psychological drama at the root of the conflict, which is as much a quest for a collective identity as a campaign for democracy.