Hong Kong activist Nathan Law continues the fight

The exiled activist and Perry World House Visiting Fellow discusses his current work and his thoughts on the state of democracy around the world.

Hong Kong activist Nathan Law at Perry World House earlier this month.
Hong Kong activist Nathan Law at Perry World House earlier this month. 

Nathan Law, a Hong Kong activist currently exiled in London, spent a week at Penn earlier this month as part of his role as a Perry World House Visiting Fellow.

During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, Law was one of five representatives who took part in dialogue with the government, debating political reform. In 2016, Law was elected as the youngest legislator in Hong Kong’s history. In July 2017, however, his seat was overturned following Beijing’s constitutional reinterpretation, and Law was later jailed for his participation in the Umbrella Movement.

This persecution sparked global concern over Beijing’s crackdown on human rights and democratic movement in Hong Kong. Due to the risk imposed by the National Security Law, Law left Hong Kong for Britain and continues to speak up for the people of Hong Kong at the international level.

“Nathan’s visit reminded us of the precarity of our freedoms and rights. They only last and matter if we are willing to invest in them, renew our commitments, and fight for their endurance and protection of every single person,” says LaShawn R. Jefferson, Perry World House’s senior executive director. “He’s put his life on the line for what he believes. It’s an important message to all.”

Penn Today talked with Law during his time on campus, discussing his current activism, his thoughts on the state of democracy around the world, and what he hopes Penn students take away from his experiences. (The talk happened before the new protests erupted in China surrounding its “zero COVID” strategy.)

What type of activism are you doing from London? What’s your main focus right now?

I left Hong Kong in June 2020 and moved to London because of the worsening political situation there. After I left, the government issued a wanted warrant for me, so I’m a wanted person. I got political asylum last April. Since 2022 I’ve been in London doing a lot of advocacy work, attending conferences, giving talks. I’m talking with politicians and policymakers, and I’ve set up my own NGO working on cultural preservation of Hong Kong and also community building and empowerment work. These are lines of work that I have in London in order to advance the advocacy of Hong Kong and to raise awareness of China’s human rights violations.

What was your take of Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee’s inaugural policy address in October?

He was a police chief, and he was the head of the security bureau when I was a legislator from 2016 to 2017. Sometimes he had to present laws and answer questions in the legislative console, so that was the time we had certain encounters. He was already a very authoritarian person back then, someone who felt like as long as he has power he doesn’t have to answer to any challenges or he doesn't have to be held accountable. Those are the characteristics that Beijing thinks they need in Hong Kong. Beijing wants Hong Kong to be under complete control. They probably think John Lee is the best person to do it. For many people, once we saw that John Lee was being appointed as the chief executive, we realized that Beijing is determined to continue that heavy-handed approach.

The city recently held a week of events including a bankers’ summit drawing in the likes of the Goldman Sachs CEO and UBS Group chairman. What’s your reaction to this?

There was a strong campaign to discourage these bankers and top officials from financial institutions from going to Hong Kong to join the events because when we see the erosion of freedom, the persecution of activists, we should not just pretend nothing has happened and be there to let the Hong Kong government wear it as a badge of honor and roll out the red carpet. Some of the top officials from several big financial institutions didn’t go as a result of the pressure. And at the end of the day, I don’t think those events convinced the world that Hong Kong is still an international financial hub, given the COVID restrictions and that the future prospect of China is quite grim. Hong Kong’s institutions are tilted to China much more than before. There are concerns over the rule of law and whether international institutions there will be fairly treated. I think there are a lot of concerns, and it really reflects on the worsening economy of Hong Kong and the stock market.

What are your thoughts on the state of democracy in the world?

The state of democracy in the world is definitely in recession, for at least 15 years. I have not seen signs that it is getting drastically better. But of course, what we believe in democratic systems is the ability for them to self-correct. For instance, even after political mistakes, voters have power and the country itself has the division of power, they have a correctional system to make it better. I hope this midterm election in the U.S. is one of those self corrects. I would also hope when we see protests around the world it is a demonstration of people’s determination and resisting the rise of authoritarianism.

For now, I can tell that the world has been much more cautious about the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and its authoritarian, expansionist nature. Nations have been implementing a lot of policy blunting the influence of China, including the U.S., which has been rolling out a lot of policies stopping China from flexing its muscle inside the country and also using from technological advancement to continue to expand their influence. We are witnessing nations realizing the rise of authoritarianism is the major contributing factor of the erosion of democracy that we have worldwide. We just need more resources and more agency to tackle those problems.

What’s the most important thing for people to understand about what’s happening in Hong Kong?

People need to understand how fast a free society can be eroded with an unchecked power. I think this is the major lesson that we learned in Hong Kong. Prior to 2019, Hong Kong had been a free society where we could talk about basically anything. We could criticize Xi Jinping, we could talk about how bad the government is or even to a degree we could explore Hong Kong’s future, if we want a different political system, etc. But after the implementation of the National Security Law the whole space collapsed in just one to two years. In 2020, they passed the National Security Law that ordered all the major independent news outlets to be gone, that ordered most of the civil society organizations that were there as a watchdog on the government, they were ordered gone. Most of the political activists are in jail or on the way to jail. Freedom of speech is also gone. We’ve got cases where protesters chanting a slogan on the street are arrested just because they’ve said something the government doesn’t like. Transforming that society into an authoritarian police state, it only took Hong Kong a year to do it. It should remind every one of us that we are beneficiaries of the free society, but we are also guardians of it. If we are not aware, if we were not vigilant, then our freedoms could slip away fairly easily.

What has your time on the Penn campus been like?

I’ve been meeting a lot of faculty members, talking to a lot of students who are studying topics like politics or China, answering questions mostly. Because I think for me my largest resource is my story and my experience in political activism. I think in terms of academic study, Penn students have many more resources than me. I’m here to answer their questions about activism but also about life. I’m a bit older than them but not that old so that I can also understand the life stage that they’re going through, exploring and sometimes feeling a bit lost. Maybe my experience also can help them to navigate life in that stage.

You were the youngest lawmaker in the history of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. What inspired you to run for office and what advice do you have for other young people wanting to make real changes in their government?

I didn’t grow up in a political family. I grew up in a blue-collar family. Both my parents are from mainland China. They escaped political terror and economic strain in mainland China, but they also had the idea that they wanted the next generation to just focus on bread-and-butter issues, to just try to climb up the social ladder, graduate from college, so they never taught anything about politics or social rights in my family education.

It was not until I learned about the story of the Tiananmen massacre in high school and the story of dissident human rights activist Liu Xiaobo that I had the idea that, well, maybe it’s time for me as a young person to step up and to fight for something that I think is really important to Hong Kong people. So, when I was in college, I ran for the student union; I became the representative of it. Then the Umbrella Movement took place in my term so that I became the student leader and became a public figure.

For me, it was always taking things step by step. I didn’t think at the beginning that I would be a longtime activist. I was thinking that maybe it was just a one-year thing and after my term I would just focus on my study, focus on maybe learning a new language. But at the end of the day, I think it was witnessing injustice and witnessing the determination of others that made me more and more ready to be an activist.

For me, it took a lot of unexpected turns to become who I am today. I was a student leader and then I was a legislator, and then I was in prison, and now I’m now exiled. I didn’t imagine that I’d be through any of that. So, my advice is don’t set a high bar for yourself at the beginning. Try to get involved with friends, get into a community and test it out a little bit to get to know what you really want to focus on. If you grow your knowledge, you grow your understanding of yourself. Just try it and then you will know a bit more about yourself and how much you can give to the cause.