In August 2017, as the baking sun bore down on the streets of Hong Kong and university students were finishing up their summer jobs or returning from family trips, I was sentenced to six months in prison for my role in the Umbrella Movement that sent shock waves through the world and changed Hong Kong’s history. I was immediately taken to Pik Uk Correctional Institution, a short walk from the school I used to attend. I was 20 years old.
The Department of Justice had won their appeal to increase my sentence from 80 hours of community service to a prison term – the first time anyone in Hong Kong was sentenced to jail for the charge of unlawful assembly. In doing so, the appeal had also made me one of the city’s first political prisoners.
I had planned to keep a journal while I was in prison, both to make the time go by faster and to record the many conversations and events I was privy to within the prison walls. I thought that perhaps one day I would turn those notes into a book – and here it is.
This book comprises three acts. The first chron- icles my coming of age, from a 14-year-old student campaign organiser to the founder of a political party and the face of a resistance movement against the ever-reaching long arm of Communist China in Hong Kong and beyond. It is a genesis story that lays bare a tumultuous decade of grassroots activism that lifted a population of 7 million out of political apathy into a heightened sense of social justice, capturing the imagination of the international community in the process.
In the second act, readers will find stories and anecdotes from my summer behind bars, captured in letters written every evening after I returned to my prison cell, as I sat on my hard bed and put pen to paper under dim light. I wanted to share my views on the state of the political movement in Hong Kong, the direction it should take, and how it is expected to shape our future. I also wanted to cap- ture the essence of prison life, from my dialogues with prison staff to time spent with other inmates watching the news on television and trading stories of prisoner abuse. The experience brought me ever closer to other imprisoned activists like Martin Luther King Jr and Liu Xiaobo – giants who inspired and guided me in spirit through the city’s darkest hours and my own.
The book closes with an urgent call for all of us around the world to defend our democratic rights. Recent incidents, from the US National Basketball Association social media controversy to Apple’s removal of a police-tracking app in Hong Kong, have shown that the erosion of freedoms that has plagued Hong Kong is spreading to the rest of the world. If multinationals, international governments and indeed ordinary citizens do not start paying attention to Hong Kong and treating our story as an early warning signal, it won’t be long before everyone else feels the same invasion of civil liberties that Hong Kongers have endured and resisted every day on our streets for the past two decades.
Through Unfree Speech – my first book written for the international audience – I hope readers will get to know a young man in transition, both in mind- set and in experience. But the book also reveals a city in transition, from a British colony to a special admin- istrative region under Communist rule, from a concrete jungle of glass and steel to an urban battlefield of gas masks and umbrellas, from a pre-eminent financial hub to a shining bastion of freedom and defiance in the face of a global threat. These transitions have made me more committed than ever to the fight for a better Hong Kong – a cause that has defined my adolescence and continues to shape who I am. Every day at Pik Uk Prison began with the same, exacting morning march: each inmate was expected to fall in line, march, halt, make a 90-degree turn, look up at the guards and announce their presence one after the other. Every day I heard myself shout- ing those same words at the top of my lungs: ‘Good morning, Sir! I, Joshua Wong, prison number 4030XX, have been convicted of unlawful assembly. Thank you, SIR!’
I am Joshua Wong. My prison number was 4030XX. And this is my story.