Interview: Nathan Law

A leader of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella movement talks to Ben Horton about fleeing his home and how the West should counter China

The World Today Updated 4 July 2023 Published 1 August 2021 3 minute READ

You fled Hong Kong last year on the eve of the national security law coming into effect and, at 28, have now been granted asylum in Britain. Why did you leave?

Before the implementation of the national security law, we were aware that it would be an extremely draconian change, and that the international advocacy work we had been doing would no longer be possible inside Hong Kong itself.

I didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye to my family because knowing I was leaving could have put them in danger

I thought it was important for our movement to have a recognized figure who could speak up for Hong Kong at the international level. That became a huge impetus for me to consider leaving because preserving my voice was important.

On my last day in Hong Kong, I just packed my backpack and hand luggage, and boarded the plane. I didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye to my family because knowing I was leaving could have put them in danger.

We had seen elsewhere how families of activists were threatened or persecuted. I didn’t want that to happen to my family. I just had to embark on the journey by myself.

What did it feel like to watch something you had been so centrally involved in unfold while you were so far away?

It was definitely a completely different sense. When you are on the ground, you can interact with people, you can participate at team rallies, you can really feel the local sentiment. But now, when you observe everything from a distant place, it feels like everything is blurred. And my responsibility is different.

Today I meet more foreign politicians and commentators, searching for support in crafting a better Hong Kong strategy, and a more assertive China policy. So, the role is very different, and I just have to adjust myself and try to accommodate the needs of being in this position.

What has happened in Hong Kong now the national security law is in place?

What China did was to transplant the way they govern society in mainland China into Hong Kong. It has devastated the civil society sector

The new law has completely reshaped Hong Kong’s political landscape. What China did was to transplant the way that they govern society in mainland China into Hong Kong.

It has devastated the civil society sector which is meant to hold government accountable to the people. In quashing it, they also crushed the principle of the division of power and the individual civil rights of the people of Hong Kong.

This past year since the law came in, we have seen a lot of things in Hong Kong that show the consequences of this reform. I think about 140 people involved in protests have been arrested, in some cases just for chanting or displaying certain slogans.

In another high-profile case, 53 political campaigners were arrested for the so-called subversive act of organizing a primary election for the opposition party. Imagine a foreign country that enjoys democracy accusing a party of subversive actions simply for holding a primary election. But in Hong Kong, this is exactly what happened.

The law is being weaponized to allow the Chinese government to impose the idea that it is no longer tolerating opposition. It is taking steps to remove our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and even political participation. This is the reality of Hong Kong now.

The West, and your adopted home of Britain, have a complex relationship with China as they try to balance trade dependencies with speaking out against human rights abuses. Is this preventing meaningful western support for Hong Kong?

These issues should not be mutually exclusive. Definitely, policymakers should value human rights and the pursuit for democracy in their diplomatic, and even economic, policies. In the long run the global economy’s reliance on China will decline. For now, it is just so intertwined in the economic policy of many foreign countries.

We should seek more cooperation between democratic countries to decrease the risks of economic blackmail or intimidation from authoritarian regimes such as China. Britain should really cultivate its policies in that fashion.

We have to make clear the threat that China poses to our global democracy. The Chinese government is a threat to democratic systems on Hong Kong soil, and it has infiltrated and undermined democracies abroad. These are things that we have to tackle at the same time as supporting economic activity.

How far have pro-democracy activists been able to use social media platforms such as WeChat to share information about Hong Kong?

The news available to people on WeChat is propaganda designed to shape their understanding of Hong Kong

WeChat is an enclosed environment. Any speeches or any messages that violate a Chinese Communist Party narrative will be immediately censored and deleted. And the news available to people on WeChat is propaganda designed to shape their understanding of Hong Kong in a way that the Chinese government wants.

It is a powerful tool the government uses to control people’s thoughts. And it is difficult to penetrate these walls because the internet in China was built to control people. We just have to rely on a legitimacy crisis for the CCP and uprisings within China based on public disappointment in the government.

How much stock do you put by this idea of disruption to the system coming from within mainland China?

There are a lot of internal problems facing the Chinese government, from its ageing society to slower economic growth due to a struggling industrial transformation.

These are factors that may destabilize the population and make people disappointed in their government, possibly leading to a fall in legitimacy. At that point the government may have to resort to other, more brutal ways to convince the people to continue to support it.

So yes, definitely, I believe that the government will face a crisis. It is just impossible to predict when it will come.

Under what sort of conditions might you return to Hong Kong?

It is unlikely that I could go back before Hong Kong returns to being a democratic and free place. This really relies on some very dynamic changes taking place in terms of political legitimacy within mainland China, and on the international community’s ability to hold China accountable by implementing concrete policies.

It is difficult to predict when these changes might take place, but I do believe they will come.