What does it mean—not just for Hong Kong but for our entire region— when the city’s most famous icon of democracy is prohibited from travelling freely and treated like a pariah by his own government? When the best and brightest face that Hong Kong currently has to offer to the world receives nothing but repeated slaps at home?

Yes, Joshua Wong Chi-fung is only 19 years old. Yes, he is naive. And, yes, he and his many fans are deluded about their ability to take Hong Kong back from the increasingly vice-like grip of authorities in Beijing.

Joshua Wong and the room he was being detained in. Photo: Facebook.

But they are certainly within their legal rights to try, and a good portion of the world is looking on with admiration and applause. After all, everyone loves an underdog, especially when that dog is standing on the moral high ground as powerful and unprincipled forces rain punishment and abuse upon him.

Wong became the international face of the Occupy movement two years ago, appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and has continued to play a leading role in Hong Kong’s insuppressible push for greater democracy. Much to the chagrin of Chinese leaders, he now flies around the world telling the Occupy story and encouraging democracy movements everywhere. He’s a hero in the West; unfortunately, however, thanks to Beijing’s heavy hand, he is unwelcome in his own Asian backyard.

In May 2015, on the grounds that his presence might jeopardise relations with China, Wong was denied entry to Malaysia, where he was scheduled to address a seminar on his role in Occupy, and last week he was blocked from entering Thailand ahead of a speech he was expected to give at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok to mark the anniversary of a brutal crackdown on Thai student protesters 40 years ago.

While the Malaysian ban was disturbing, Wong’s treatment by the Thai government was downright ugly, not to mention a patent violation of his freedom to travel to a country that routinely accepts hordes of visitors from Hong Kong every single day.

At least Malaysian authorities simply turned the perceived rabble-rouser around at the airport and sent him back home. Thai officials thought it better to isolate, detain and threaten Wong for 12 hours, without allowing him access to a lawyer or contact with family or friends, before returning the shaken and exhausted activist back to Hong Kong.

Joshua Wong speaking to reporters after his release. Photo: Facebook screencap.

Although Thai immigration authorities claim to have acted on their own, they failed to explain earlier remarks by the country’s military leader when asked by reporters about Wong’s case.

“It’s Chinese officials’ business,” Prayuth Chan-ocha was quoted as saying. “Don’t get involved too much. They are all Chinese people, no matter Hong Kong or mainland China.”

It’s interesting that the general made no distinction between citizens of the mainland and citizens of Hong Kong. That’s not exactly the way the “one country, two systems” formula is supposed to work.

Meanwhile, China’s foreign ministry insists it was solely a Thai decision to reject Wong, and an unsupportive Hong Kong government has left Hong Kong’s most internationally recognised figure twisting in the diplomatic wind—confirming, once again, the perception that officials here simply kowtow to edicts issuing from Beijing, even when those commands impinge on the city’s autonomy and human-rights guaranteed under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

Wong’s gross mistreatment at Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi Airport also confirms the status of Thailand, once an ally of the United States, as one of China’s Southeast Asian satellites. Remember, this is the country that oversaw and excused the disappearance of Causeway Bay bookseller Gui Minhai, now languishing in detention on the mainland after mysteriously vanishing from his flat last year in the Thai resort city of Pattaya.

The world didn’t know Gui, a publisher of titillating, thinly sourced texts about Chinese leaders, so he remains detained. Wong’s international recognition may very well have saved him from a similar fate and brought him back to Hong Kong to fight another day.

Gui Minhai, detained publisher, on the cover of a magazine. File photo: HKFP.

And there is no question that he will keep on fighting in a city where he continues to attract substantial support and his treatment in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok is regarded as a badge of honour. Indeed, the only reason he won’t be at the swearing-in ceremony for new legislative councillors this month is his age—candidates must be at least 21 years old to run for office.

Wong’s Occupy compatriot, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, had no trouble winning a LegCo seat for Hong Kong Island in last month’s elections, receiving the second-highest number of votes in the six-seat constituency and becoming, at 23, the youngest person ever elected to the council. It’s only a matter of time before Wong joins Law, with whom he founded the Demosistō political party earlier this year, as one of the city’s youthful new brigade of lawmakers.

This group will be giving the Chinese leadership and their Hong Kong puppets headaches for many years to come.

Maybe they are not so naive after all.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.