Joshua Wong, one of Hong Kong’s most renowned pro-democracy activists, vowed to fight the “long term battle” for the city’s freedoms after his surprise release from jail on Monday morning.
Mr Wong, 22, who became the face of the “Occupy” movement five years ago when he was just a teenager, was freed from the Lai Chi Kok Correctional Institute halfway through a delayed two month sentence for obstructing the clearance of a major protest camp during the 2014 mass protests.
The exact reasons for his release remain unconfirmed, but the timing suggests Hong Kong’s authorities may have been seeking to ease public tension after what may have been the city’s largest rally since 1989, when citizens flooded the streets in support of Tiananmen Square activists.
Protest groups on Sunday claimed that two million people had clogged the streets of the financial hub, demanding the resignation of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and the scrapping of a controversial extradition law that leaves citizens vulnerable to being renditioned into China’s opaque justice system.
Granting the freedom of a charismatic youth leader at a time when the grassroots protest movement is building momentum was an unusual move by the Lam administration.
But it perhaps indicated the government’s growing desperation to claw back public trust during one of Hong Kong’s worst political crises in decades.
The announcement of his release was made late on Sunday after Ms Lam issued a rare apology for misjudging the public’s views and pledged to “adopt a most sincere and humble attitude.”
Addressing a media scrum on the side of the road in fluent Cantonese, Mandarin and English, Mr Wong said he was ready to rejoin the frontlines of the pro-democracy movement and immediately echoed their demands for Ms Lam to step down.
If she did not do so before the 22nd anniversary in July of Hong Kong’s handover to China, even more people would throng the streets to “join our fight until we get our basic human rights and freedom.”
Mr Wong praised the “spirit and dignity of the Hong Kong people” who have staged two massive demonstrations against the extradition bill within the past two weeks, the first on June 9, when organisers claimed one million marchers.
The cry to abolish the bill was only the start of the struggle, he said. “It is a long-term battle for us to fight for democracy under the suppression of the Communist party of China,” declared Mr Wong.
“What we are trying to do through civil disobedience and direct action is to let the whole world and the international community know that Hong Kong people will not keep silent under the suppression of President Xi and the Chief Executive Carrie Lam,” he added.
The strength of public opposition to the draft extradition law led to its indefinite suspension on Saturday followed by Ms Lam’s apology the next day when protesters failed to be placated.
Mr Wong was reluctant to declare a victory. “I have just recognised the achievement,” he said.
But Hong Kong’s most recent uprising, which has drawn support from a vast cross-section of its seven-million-strong population is in many ways a vindication of the perseverance of Occupy, also known as the “Umbrella” movement.
In 2014, they were eventually dispersed without achieving their objective of genuine universal voting to elect the city’s chief executive, but they appear to have inspired a younger generation of activists dedicated to fighting for their freedoms as their rights shrink under Chinese rule.
“In December 2014, during the final days of the Umbrella Movement, prominent signs proclaiming We’ll Be Back sprang up along Harcourt Road, one of the three major thruways occupied by peaceful pro-democracy protesters for nearly three months,” Mr Wong wrote from his prison cell last week in TIME.
“That promise was fulfilled when more than 1 million people took to the streets,” he said.