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Hong Kong's 19-Year-Old Protest Hero Brings His Case To The U.S.

Joshua Wong has led thousands of protesters and has founded a new political party — and he's not even 20 years old. Now he's touring top U.S universities to talk about his cause.

Posted on April 22, 2016, at 12:59 p.m. ET

This is Joshua Wong, a 19-year old student who is very popular in Hong Kong as the face of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement for the past five years.

Justin Tallis / AFP / Getty Images

How popular is he? In 2014, after tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong demanding more democracy, Time magazine's Asia edition called him "the face of protest" on its cover, just a few days before his 18th birthday. The New York Sun said he should be given a Nobel Peace Prize.


Wong was in the U.S. this week visiting top universities like Columbia and NYU. His goal is to ask future international decision-makers to support a push for a referendum in Hong Kong to decide if it wants to split from China.

Wearing suit is a rare scenario for me...What do you think? #NYC #withoutatie

Wong will head to Canada next.

The referendum is at the top of the agenda for Wong's brand-new political party, Demosistō, which means "People Standing." (He may have a party, but the 19-year-old has to wait two more years to be old enough to run for office.)

Bobby Yip / Reuters

He now works as the general secretary of the party, which was launched on April 10.

When he returns to Hong Kong, Wong will face trial over charges related to the Umbrella Movement, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding the right to choose their own top executive in the 2017 election. Their symbol became the umbrella, which they used to fend off pepper spray attacks from the police.

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If convicted, Wong could face up to five years in prison.

Wong's name is among the blocked terms on the Chinese social network Weibo. He has also reportedly been placed under a travel ban to Malaysia because of "anti-China" views.

Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty Images

With all that, it's easy to forget Wong is still a university student. That's because he started his political activism early — when he was just 14.

Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty Images

The year was 2011 and Wong founded Scholarism, a pro-democracy youth and student advocacy group.

Philippe Lopez / AFP / Getty Images

They were against the Beijing-approved "Moral and National" education in public schools. A year later, at 15, he mobilized 120,000 people to walk on streets. They won: the Hong Kong government compromised and put the plan aside.

But it wasn't until 2014 when Wong really came into the spotlight. In September of that year, he triggered the Umbrella Movement protests: he was the one who walked to a podium outside the Central Government Offices and called on people to break in and occupy the square in front of the buildings.

Philippe Lopez / AFP / Getty Images

Students were arrested, more people came to support, more pepper spray attacks, Occupy Movement officially started.

The protests lasted for 79 days.

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

But not everyone likes Wong. On his Facebook page — where nearly 300,000 people follow him — there are tons of angry emojis and negative comments, calling him a "liar" who "just wants to make his way up." He's picked up the negative nickname "kappa," which is the name of a mythical Japanese river monster that some think he bears a resemblance to.

Beimeng Fu / BuzzFeed

Beimeng Fu / BuzzFeed

Wong is also challenged when he goes abroad, like at his Monday speech at Columbia University, where a visiting scholar from mainland China asked him if he identified as "Chinese." A student from Hong Kong at the event said "people just want the kid to shut up."

Since he has put on a politician's hat, people have started looking at him differently. Many are frustrated with him because the protests in Hong Kong didn't bring about any change.

Aaron Tam / AFP / Getty Images

Nothing has gone quite right since his new campaign began — the party has been accused of ripping off its logo, its domain name got cyber-squatted, and former supporters of the old student group are">questioning the group's funding.

Wong admits that not everyone is going to like him. "Because I'm younger, it's easy to gain attention. But gaining attention doesn't mean that people will 100% support," he recently told BuzzFeed Japan. "That's why it is just a stepping stone for me to direct attention to the issues I'm concerned about."

Beimeng Fu / BuzzFeed

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.