This post is part of Fusion’s Teen Month series, a month-long dive into the lives, loves, and language of teenagers.
A year ago this week, Joshua Wong and other student activists broke through a police line in Hong Kong, setting off three months of street protests that brought the city to a halt.
Wong, who was 17 at the time, quickly became an international sensation for his forceful speeches calling for democracy. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine, and he even had to call a press conference about his university exam scores.
A year later, having recently started college, he’s focused more on political organizing than his classes, and he’s determined to get people his age and younger involved in the democracy movement. “We need to get the power of the new generations into politics,” he told me in a Skype interview earlier this month.
Wong is only the most prominent example of a new generation of teen activists and protesters who are shaking up politics in Asia.
Last week, Japanese student protesters filled Tokyo’s government district in what experts described as the country’s most forceful student protests in decades. They railed against the government's decision to allow military engagement overseas, which reversed a 70-year-old vow of pacifism enshrined in the country’s postwar constitution. “The point of politics is to promote the common good,” 19-year-old protester Erina Nakagawa told the Guardian. “So we’re the complete opposite of selfish in what we’re doing.”
In Thailand, a group of university students was detained in May for peacefully protesting the military junta government. Students there like to flash the three-fingered mockingjay salute from the Hunger Games series.
A month later in the Philippines, a 19-year-old student was arrested for unfurling a political poster and shouting anti-corruption slogans during a presidential speech—security guards used his banner as a gag. He’s since challenged the president to a debate.
And not all of the young activists are out on the streets. In Singapore, 16-year-old Amos Yee is sparking discussions about free speech from his bedroom with a series of videos mocking the government that landed him in jail for almost two months and won attention from around the world.
“I guess my case just resonated with people,” Yee told me. “I was trying to show an honest view of the government, and because of that, I got arrested.”
There’s a long history of university students across Asia protesting and creating social change. One of the reasons that can make student protests successful, said Meredith Weiss, a University of Albany professor who edited a book on student movements in Asia, is the idea that “they are acting not out of self-interest but out of a concern for others.”
But examples of high school students or teenagers leading protests are much rarer, she said. In Singapore, middle and high school students protested the national requirement of military service by the British colonial government in the 1950s. Some eventually occupied their schools.
Part of the reason why people as young as 16 are now playing a bigger role in politics across the region is social media. Both Wong and Yee describe themselves as fairly typical teenagers before they started following political debates and news on Facebook and YouTube.
The web also makes it easier for young activists in different countries to learn from each other and support each other’s work. Wong has been in touch with student leaders in Taiwan and Malaysia, and his pro-democracy student group Scholarism held a protest calling for Yee to be released from prison.
Often, these teen activists get their start with issues that affect students, and then grow from there. Wong led his first protest movement not on the issue of voting rights but about something closer to home: the high school curriculum.
In Spring 2011, when Wong was a freshman in high school in Hong Kong, the city government announced it would implement a new course: “Moral and National Education.” All high school students would learn about how the Chinese Communist Party was a “progressive, selfless and united organization.” Annoyed with the blatant attempts at indoctrination, Wong and a few friends started a protest movement against the plan, handing out flyers at subway stations.
“When the traditional political parties ignored our request, we tried to organize the voices of students,” Wong said. And organize they did—his protest group, Scholarism, grew from 200 volunteers to a 120,000-person demonstration at government offices. The key was when students realized that the new course would mean more schoolwork for a generation already struggling with a stressful, test-heavy school culture. The government eventually backed down and dropped the plan.
“Politics is not that complex,” Wong said. “It’s about the things related to our daily life.”
Before the curriculum protests, Wong mostly played video games and didn’t care about political news. He soon got interested in bigger issues and started following political debates and discussions online. “Facebook was my library,” he said.
Hong Kong has a strong tradition of freedom of speech and debate, and is subject to none of the internet or political restrictions that blanket the rest of China. But its elected officials are chosen by a committee of business leaders loyal to Beijing, and the general public doesn’t have a real say in who represents them.
The protesters that occupied city streets for three months last year were calling for true voting rights, and the ability for anyone to nominate candidates. While the older generation of democracy activists was looking to compromise, Wong and his peers had bigger ideas. On Sept. 26, he and other students broke into the government district and occupied it. They were arrested early the next morning, and Wong was held in prison for 46 hours. In the meantime, police tear gassed other student protesters, creating an outpouring of support and encouraging more people to come to the streets.
“People believe that adults should protect young people,” Wong, who turns 19 next month, said. “Actually, it was we who were protecting them, not the other way around.”
The protests, which became known as the Umbrella Revolution for activists’ use of umbrellas to block tear gas, waxed and waned, topping 100,000 people at some points. The demonstrators were eventually cleared out by the police in December. While the government didn’t enact any reforms, Wong says he thinks his group lost the battle but not the war. “The Umbrella Movement changed the momentum of Hong Kong,” he said. “We motivated the new generation—I mean the people who were born after 2000.”
More than 10,000 high school students participated in the protests. Wong thinks that number will grow even higher the next time people take to the streets. “While the old people could not lead the movement, the new generation will come to the frontlines and lead by themselves, even if they are still in high school,” he said.
Weiss, the professor, said that Wong’s Scholarism movement is unique for its focus on teens. “It has really shown the capacity of high school students to mobilize in Hong Kong,” Weiss said. “Historically, that hasn’t been the case.” Unlike the anti-standardized test movement in the U.S., which is overwhelmingly directed by parents, Scholarism was completely organized by high school students, some of whom are now, like Wong, in college.
Because he was so focused on student movement during his exams, Wong didn’t do very well. He’s going to Open University, a local school not marked by prestige. They teach mainly with “skimpy Powerpoints online,” Wong said. Wong said he goes to some lectures, but doesn’t feel very invested in his campus. “I don’t have a lot of interest in the school life,” he said. “I feel like I’m majoring in running a social movement and I’m a part time university student.”
He’s now being charged for unlawful assembly, which could mean a maximum prison sentence of five years, but Wong said he isn’t worried about the possible punishment.
It’s not clear where the pro-democracy movement goes next. Wong said he doesn’t think there will be more street protests this year, and while some are calling for Hong Kong’s independence from China, he said that’s impractical. Instead, he hopes to hold a citywide referendum to show Beijing that Hong Kongers want to decide their issues for themselves.
In fact, he’s thinking very long-term: to 2047, when Hong Kong will legally become just a part of China. Activists should prepare for that date by focusing on today’s teens, who will be the city’s leaders then.
“People may think that politics is for businessmen, or people with high education, people about 40 years old,” Wong said. “What I would like to say is, not only those old people above 40 can be a politician or be involved in politics. Everyone from any kind of education level, family background, income level—they also have the ability to change the world.”
Yee, the Singapore blogger and YouTuber, has been sparking a discussion about freedom of speech in the tightly run city-state with his popular—and controversial—videos. Leading protests through the streets or getting directly involved in politics isn’t the only way teen activists are making a difference.
He gained international attention after he was jailed for 53 days this summer for posting a video criticizing the former prime minister and founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. Yee was charged for a joke about Christians, breaking obscenity, and religious discrimination laws.
“Why hasn’t anyone said, ‘Fuck yeah, the guy is dead?'” Yee asks in the video. “Everyone is afraid that if they say something like that, they might get into trouble… but I’m not afraid.”
In his videos, sporting bushy hair and big glasses, Yee critiques Singaporean society, reviews movies and books, and discusses life as a teenager. He speaks eloquently but with manic speed, zipping between impassioned pleas, statistics, and creative obscenities.
Like Wong, he comes across as principled and precocious—but a little less straight-laced. “I guess I broke out of the bounds of fear and really criticized the government,” Yee told me in a Skype interview. “I broke many boundaries along the way. I’ll keep on doing that, and hopefully other people will too.”
“The only thing we can do is continue saying the government sucks,” he said.
For Yee, the inspiration began with YouTube. He started making videos—which he calls “my art”—in sixth grade. He won a local award for a five-minute skit in which he directs and acts three different parts. “I was just trying to create something creative and artistic, something funny,” he said, not make any political statements. But soon, he says, he “found out more about the bitter realities of the world and causes I wanted to advocate for: atheism, veganism, and right now, politics.”
“It added that layer of depth into the comedy,” he said.
He decided to stop attending school last year, when he was 16. “That was the greatest decision in my life,” Yee says. “Before I dropped out, I was a really bland, boring person. My writing was stale, I was depressed every day, I was humorless.” After he left school, he says, “I started to explore myself, I had the time to contemplate… you can’t do that at all when you’re constantly cramming notes in school.”
Soon, his videos took on a more political tone. In the U.S., we’re used to watching Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and other commentators who mix comedy, politics, and social criticism. That combination of genres—while not unheard of—is less common in Singapore, where the major newspapers and TV stations are directly or indirectly controlled by the government.
Yee knew that he was crossing a line in criticizing the beloved former Prime Minister Lee—but he didn’t expect what happened. He's written long posts on his blog about his time in jail, saying he was strapped to a bed and considered suicide. “I thought that the maximum punishment that I would get is a fine,” he told me. “No way did I think that they would actually send me to prison or reformative training.”
While he was in prison, Yee's mother took to wearing a "Free Amos Yee" T-shirt at public rallies and wrote a widely-shared Facebook message apologizing to her son for teaching him Singapore was a safe country. (Wong has described his parents as quiet, ordinary people who support what he's doing but aren't activists themselves.)
Yee’s detention was big news in Singapore and around the world. In western media, he’s been portrayed as a hero for freedom of speech. At home, opinions are sharply divided, and he’s gotten a lot of hate mail. But his arrest didn’t seem to play a major role in the city-state’s elections earlier this month. “It was actually kind of intriguing how little a role a call for civil liberties played” in the elections, Weiss said.
The governing party that Yee had skewered increased its already sky-high voting share. “I was extremely shocked,” he said about the results. “Yeah, our country is going to be fucked for the next five years, and probably more.”
Yee feels a “tinge of fear” about being arrested again, but he’s kept making videos criticizing the government. His legal battle has only drawn more attention to his videos, which get hundreds of thousands of views. “Right now my sleep schedule is fucked,” he said. “Even when I’m tired, I can’t sleep because the ideas just keep coming.”
In the future, he’d like to make movies, books, or music. When he turns 18, he’ll have to complete his compulsory military service, which he’s hardly enthusiastic about. “I’ll deal with that when the time comes,” he said.
For now, he’s focused on making videos and trying to get people to change Singapore. “There’s lots of misery in the world,” he said. “You have to look at the humor in that misery.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated Wong's age: He was 17 when the protests started, not 16.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.