Meet the Two 20-Somethings Taking a Stand for Democracy in Hong Kong


If you've looked at the pro-democracy protesters flooding the streets of Hong Kong, you might've noticed that they look young. It's true: As TIME notes, the demonstrations that have captured the world's attention over the last week are filled with "smart, determined and peaceful young people" who have finally found their political footing.

For the past few weeks, it's been primarily students who have blocked key thoroughfares in the semiautonomous Chinese territory as a way to contest Beijing officials' decision that they have final say in who runs as the region's leader in the 2017 elections. At the heart of those protests are 20-somethings with a vision of a democratic Hong Kong. 

The talker: One of the two is Alex Chow, a 24-year-old comparative literature and sociology student and head of Hong Kong's biggest group of university students. He helped "mobilize the largest and most disruptive demonstrations in the territory in decades," the Los Angeles Times reported. Described as a "fast talker skilled at impassioned oratory," Chow's energy has influenced crowds to fan out in the Hong Kong streets and force Beijing to pay attention. In July, he and his group disrupted the city after its annual pro-democracy rally by having a sit-in in the middle of a road, which resulted in more than 500 arrests. 

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"There were tattoo artists, massage therapists, construction workers, engineers, teachers, photographers, retired civil servants. I really felt sorry for them," Chow wrote in an online forum after the arrests. "In the past 30 years, the democracy movement has been too slow and too painstaking. The power of civil disobedience lies ... in the blood and tears of everyone who is behind the struggle."

"It's not enough to repeat the march and the assembly every year," he said at the time per The Guardian. "We have to upgrade it to a civil disobedience movement."

Now, the Hong Kong government is listening. Officials from Hong Kong's Chief Secretary Carrie Lam's office said they have met with three representatives of the Hong Kong Federation of Students in an attempt to defuse the situation. Unfortunately, the two sides didn't reach an agreement. 

The introvert: Lester Shum, the 21-year-old deputy secretary-general for the students' federation who the Los Angeles Times described as Chow's "more introverted" deputy, has said that the two sides would continue to protest until there is a productive dialogue between the government and students. 

Shum was initially an engineering major in Hong Kong before switching to politics. Nelson Lee, a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Los Angeles Times that Shum was passionate about getting an intellectual grounding; he even appealed to Lee to take his Politics of Culture class on Marxism and capitalism, a popular course among young activists in Hong Kong. 

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And the two haven't wavered, despite serious personal risks. In a recent demonstration, Chow screamed at thousands of protesters near the government headquarters: "This is not a student movement; this is a Hong Kongers' movement."

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The kid: By Chow's side Saturday was Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old leader of the student group Scholarism. He founded the group three years ago to contest Beijing's decision to impose a "patriotic education" curriculum on Hong Kong's public school system. He managed to assemble a 120,000-strong group to protest the plan, which officials later scrapped.

His ideals have prompted state media to paint him as an "extremist" with ties to America, a claim he denies. And as a 17-year-old, he's already speaking like someone triple his age. "You have to see every battle as possibly the final battle," he said to CNN. "Only then will you have the determination to fight."

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Chow and Shum seem like an intellectual Odd Couple of activists: Chow, the talker in the streets, and Shum, the introverted theorist looking ahead to the next battle. Together the two are leading a mass of students in one of the biggest stands against Beijing in decades.

"We are just ordinary students. What we're fighting for is our future, for a democratic system," Chum said Saturday before a deep bow to the audience. "All of you have worked so hard."