The Reality of Modern Resistance: A Review of Unfree Speech
by J. Sorel
Given his current status on the world stage, the first English-language publication from Joshua Wong was destined to be a monumental event, regardless of its content. Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act Now! (co-written with Jason Y Ng and published earlier this year) might even be one of the most important books by a Hong Kong author this decade. It is, however, a book that wears the challenges of its construction on its sleeve and one that is constrained, not only by the authoritarianism it dares to oppose, but by the practical limits of strategic writing.
The immediate impression a reader might take from Unfree Speech is that (somewhat miraculously) Wong doesn’t seem to have been seduced by the mythos that surrounds him. Despite becoming the face of the resistance movement in Hong Kong and having caught the attention of some of the most powerful people on the planet, Wong is refreshingly humble, almost to the point of self-indifference. The strength in this is a subtle one: in presenting himself as unexceptional, he leaves the reader with little excuse as to why they have chosen to remain politically inactive in their own lives.
This, however, proves to be a double-edged sword because at times Wong’s restraint forces the prose into the same aloof and perfunctory tone of a Wikipedia article and perhaps reader engagement suffers as a result. We learn from the book that Wong has had two main cultural influences: Christianity and Marvel superhero movies—but Wong has no intention of painting himself as either martyr or even as particularly heroic. Again, the humility behind this is admirable but there’s a sense in the opening chapters that less-invested readers—very possibly younger Westerners the book seems to be aimed at—will drop out, unhooked. This would be unfortunate because it is not until the book’s middle section, where we see the letters written by Wong in Pik Uk Prison, that he shines as a writer. We finally see Wong’s gift for blunt, declarative anger—his bark—and from this point onwards, Unfree Speech steadily builds momentum until its final pages feel like a ramp from which the reader is launched out of the door and into the political fray, yellow umbrella in hand.
Yellow, by the way, is a colour absent from the book’s cover, which instead postures in bold black and red in what can only be a conscious attempt to borrow the visual conventions often associated with Russian history and the fight against Soviet oppression. In particular, it seems to mimic the cover of one edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. This is an evocation that can undercut many of Unfree Speech’s strengths and readers might point to the fact that Wong’s story simply lacks the blood and brutality of Stalin’s reign. Wong’s arguments ultimately hinge on whether his readers come to understand that within a totalitarian state, the wall between violence and security is paper-thin—a distinction based entirely on the whims of those with absolute power over us. In this sense, Unfree Speech can be said to succeed or fail entirely based on one question: Does it convey the dread?
Of course, these are huge pressures to place on any writer and it’s ridiculous to expect Wong, at 23 years old, to be a master-chronicler like Solzhenitsyn. We should also ask whether a mind like Solzhenitsyn’s would have been able to navigate the new battleground for political writing as nimbly as Wong does. Ai Weiwei was correct to describe Wong as ‘a new generation of rebel’ because he is part of a new wave of activists who understand that lofty, stuffy ‘literature’ is no longer the most direct avenue for social change—the rules of political writing now must be tailored for Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and so on. They must be snappy, blunt and immediate. And that’s what Unfree Speech is: a timely book that lays out for us the practical (and, yes, sometimes banal) reality of modern resistance.
After all, barking has always been Wong’s greatest strength. He shines with the same characteristic that Lionel Trilling saw in Orwell:
…the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have. … He communicates to us the sense that what he has done any one of us could do. Or could do if we but made up our mind to do it.
J. Sorel (pen name) is originally from Buxton, England but has since settled in Hong Kong where he works full-time as a creative writing teacher.