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Meet 17-year-old Joshua Wong, a skinny, bespectacled teen whose meager physical frame belies the ferocity of his politics. Over the last two years, the student has built a pro-democracy youth movement in Hong Kong that one veteran Chinese dissident says is just as significant as the student protests at Tiananmen, 25 years ago.

Echoing the young campaigners who flooded Beijing’s central square in 1989, the teen activist wants to ignite a wave of civil disobedience among Hong Kong’s students. His goal? To pressure China into giving Hong Kong full universal suffrage.

Wong’s movement builds on years of pent-up frustration in Hong Kong.

When the former colony of the United Kingdom was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the two countries struck an agreement promising Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy,” including the democratic election of its own leader. But 17 years later, little resembling genuine democracy has materialized. China’s latest proposalsuggests Hong Kongers may vote for their next leader, but only if the candidates are approved by Beijing.

Wong is bent on fighting the proposal — and impatient to win.

“I don’t think our battle is going to be very long,” he tells CNN. “If you have the mentality that striving for democracy is a long, drawn-out war and you take it slowly, you will never achieve it.

“You have to see every battle as possibly the final battle — only then will you have the determination to fight.”

Youth awakening

Doubt him if you like, but the young activist already has a successful track record of opposition.

In 2011, Wong, then 15, became disgusted with a proposal to introduce patriotic, pro-Communist “National and Moral Education” into Hong Kong’s public schools.

With the help of a few friends, Wong started a student protest group called Scholarism. The movement swelled beyond his wildest dreams: In September 2012, Scholarism successfully rallied 120,000 protesters — including 13 young hunger strikers — to occupy the Hong Kong government headquarters, forcing the city’s beleaguered leaders to withdraw the proposed curriculum.

That was when Wong realized that Hong Kong’s youth held significant power.

“Five years ago, it was inconceivable that Hong Kong students would care about politics at all,” he says. “But there was an awakening when the national education issue happened. We all started to care about politics.”

Asked what he considers to be the biggest threats to the city, he rattles them off: From declining press freedom as news outlets change their reporting to reflect a pro-Beijing slant, to “nepotism” as Beijing-friendly politicians win top posts, the 17-year-old student says Hong Kong is quickly becoming “no different than any other Chinese city under central administration.”

MORE: Democracy isn’t dead, say Hong Kong’s activists

That’s why Wong has set his eyes on achieving universal suffrage. His group, which now has around 300 student members, has become one of the city’s most vocal voices for democracy. And the kids are being taken seriously.

In June, Scholarism drafted a plan to reform Hong Kong’s election system, which won the support of nearly one-third of voters in anunofficial citywide referendum.

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