The father of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, Martin Lee Chu-ming, will turn 79 next month with his forty-year quest to bring universal suffrage to the city unfulfilled. Will 20-year-old Joshua Wong Chi-fung, the fresh new face of Hong Kong democracy, fare any better in his lifetime?

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Joshua Wong. Photo: Abode of Chaos, via Flickr.

It’s a question that Wong himself asked (and pointedly did not answer) in his testimony last week before a US congressional panel monitoring human rights in China. Both Lee and Wong had been invited to Washington to testify before the panel, chaired by former Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and known formally as the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

Rubio and his colleagues are sponsoring legislation, called the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, that would, among other things, freeze the US assets of mainland and Hong Kong officials deemed responsible for suppressing basic freedoms in the city and also bar those officials from travelling in the US.

“The Father of Hong Kong’s democracy, Martin Lee, is turning 79 years old this year, after four decades of struggle,” Wong told the bipartisan commission. “I wonder, if I come to the age of 79, will I be able to see democracy?”

While at this point it’s hard to imagine the baby-faced Wong as a septuagenerian, it is not difficult to predict that he and his followers face a difficult and dangerous road ahead. Indeed, at this inauspicious stage of Hong Kong’s development, it seems more likely that Wong will wind up in jail before his 21st birthday than see full democracy bloom in the city before his 79th.

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Last year, the activist was sentenced to 80 hours of community service after his conviction for unlawful assembly for his part in storming the forecourt, popularly known as “Civic Square,” at government headquarters in Admiralty—the defiant act that sparked the 79-day Occupy protests of 2014. The next time the government drags Wong into court for an act of civil disobedience, the penalty may be a lot harsher.

Prodded by the powers that be in Beijing, the Hong Kong justice department has recently signalled a much tougher line on political dissent with the arrests in March of leaders of the Occupy campaign—including its three cofounders, academics Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming—on charges of committing a public nuisance. The roundup of Tai et al was followed last month by the arrests of nine activists for unlawful assembly and public disorder in connection with an anti-Beijing protest last October outside the central government’s liaison office. Add to that quota the two disqualified Youngspiration lawmakers, Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching, recently arrested for forcing their way into the Legislative Council chamber after they had been barred by the council’s president. Get the message?

Clearly, Chinese leaders are losing their patience—not to mention their tempers—with the stubborn band of Hong Kong rebels who refuse to bow to threats and pressure issuing from the north and from what is now little more than a puppet regime in this city.

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File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Following their testimony in Washington, Beijing’s bilious organs of attack wasted no time in blasting Wong and Lee—along with Lam Wing-kee, one of five Causeway Bay booksellers apparently abducted by agents of the central government in 2015, who also testified before the commission—for badmouthing the Chinese leadership, inviting US interference in Hong Kong affairs and betraying “the Chinese race.”

An article in Ta Kung Pao described Lee and Wong as “old and young race traitors,” and a commentary in the paper denounced Wong as an “ignorant and ugly” pawn of American politicians bent on smearing the motherland.

Of course, the reliably jingoistic Global Times added its own special brand of invective, labelling Wong “an independence advocate” guilty of “defaming the One Country, Two Systems policy in the US and begging for attention from the US government.”

That sums up what the Chinese government thinks of the baby face of Hong Kong democracy who has become a darling of the West. And you can expect the drumbeat of insult and vituperation to continue once Wong’s international profile receives yet another big boost later this month with the release by Netflix, the online streaming service now available to 93 million subscribers worldwide, of an inspirational documentary, Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower, focusing on Wong’s role as a 16-year-old student leader during the 79 days of Occupy.

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The film, directed by Joe Piscatella, won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and will debut May 26 on Netflix, just five weeks before Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule, with all of its attendant pageantry and patriotism.

On July 1, the day marking the handover, as the president is hailed and toasted by kowtowing Hong Kong officials, Wong and his followers will once again be in the streets protesting against the central government’s increasingly heavy-handed interference in Hong Kong affairs.

Of course, Xi—protected by an impenetrable phalanx of 10,000 Hong Kong police officers, more than a third of the city’s police force—will never see or hear any of the protests against him. But it seems much of the rest of the world continues to watch and to listen.

In the end, of course, teenagers don’t stand a chance against superpowers. Still, most people love cheering for the underdog.

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.