Nathan LawHong Kong pro-democracy activist
In the spring of 2019, Hong Kong witnessed the largest pro-democracy demonstration ever. The Chinese government responded with violent suppression and took away Hong Kong's spring as the world watched. However, in the winter of 2022, the first large-scale protest erupted in mainland China since Xi Jinping took office. The gaze initially drawn to China naturally slides to Hong Kong.
Nathan Law is a young political activist that has been leading the Hong Kong democracy movement. Beginning from the Umbrella Movement in 2014 where he participated as a student leader, he was there on every page of crucial moments of the movement. With Joshua Wong, he co-founded Demosisto, a political party to obtain Hong Kong’s sovereignty and direct election of the chief executive. He was the youngest elected official in Asia, but soon been removed from the position due to his pro-democratic activism. He was jailed several times and exiled to the United Kingdom in 2020. That did not stop him from continuing to voice for freedom in Hong Kong. We asked Mr. Law about his perspectives on China and Hong Kong, and the spring yet to come.
The Beginning of the Revolution in HK
We want to get started with a personal question. How did you get involved in politics in the first place?
I grew up in a very apolitical family. My father first moved from mainland China to Hong Kong in the late 70s. I was born in mainland China in 1993, and I came to Hong Kong with my mother in 1999. We were a very blue-collar family. My father was a construction worker, and my mother was a street cleaner. We lived in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Hong Kong, in public housing provided by the government. Both my parents had the sense of what I call “refugee mentality”; they didn't want to talk about things that may rock the boat, and thus they didn’t talk much about politics. What they wanted was for their sons to get into college, have a good job, and climb up the social ladder. So for me, I was not taught anything about freedom, democracy, human rights, or any history about it.
However, in 2010, Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize and it triggered my curiosity. I was in high school student then. He was the only Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, yet he was widely criticized by the Chinese government. I thought, “Nobel Prize is supposed to be regarded as an honor for the country, but why is the government criticizing instead of honoring this person?” My curiosity led me to participate in the Tiananmen Square Massacre candlelight vigil for the first time, held in Victoria Park in 2011.
And that was a coming-of-age experience for me. I realized that there are bigger pursuits to follow in my life than just my personal enhancement, my family, or such. I felt a responsibility to society and people, like those before me who were just like me but fought for democracy and freedom in 1989 and the past decades in Hong Kong.
So that was the time I became a bit more political and “awaken.” After that, I proceeded to the university and ran to be a representative in the student union. That choice got me into the spotlight when the Umbrella Movement broke out in 2014. Hence, that was the start of my activism.
I could never have imagined being a politician or social activist. Up until high school, I was thinking of ways of making more, bringing stability to my family, and putting more food on the table. A lot of unexpected turns in life made me who I am today.
Thanks for sharing your story. So since you moved to London in 2020, what have you been up to? And what has been your activism since then?
I've been doing a lot of advocacy work, attending conferences, and talking to politicians to push for bills that are beneficial to the Hong Kong resistance movement. I've also been doing a lot of committee work in the UK, which is the hub for Hong Kong’s exodus community. We've already got 150,000 of them to be on the citizenship pathway in the past 21 months. So there's a potential to make people at home more visible and influential through the local community in the UK.
Also cultural work. I've been organizing film festivals to host movies that are mostly banned in Hong Kong. These movies are about the 2019 protests or previous political movements in Hong Kong. Beijing has been censoring the cultural industry, so a lot of these cannot be streamed or aired in Hong Kong. So by organizing these film festivals, I hope to help Hong Kongers feel at home in the UK. I think cultural preservation—the preservation of protest memory—is also crucial for building better momentum in the community.
In general, how has the situation been developing since the enactment of the National Security Law?
Well, after the National Security Law, it’s been made very clear that free speech will be criminalized. A lot of political activists are being jailed because of their previous activism. Now, the people of Hong Kong are facing a sense of terror that even just sharing a post online will get them arrested—which certainly happened already. People are now withdrawing from public life and civil societies have crashed.
Protest of Chinese, Withers? or Still with Us
In light of that context, the so-called “blank paper protests” arose in the past few weeks, where Chinese citizens from several different cities came out to voice their opinions. What are the people demanding through this protest? And what significance does this carry in your thoughts?
Around one to two weeks ago, there were a lot of protests born out of the whole of China—we are talking about a dozen of cities. We've never seen something like this since the 1989 democratic movement in mainland China.
The simultaneous pain that everyone felt during the COVID lockdown really gave them a shared experience, to come out together without much communication. In mainland China, it is really difficult to talk about having collective actions online, offline, or even in your private communication tools. Because censorship and surveillance are everywhere, it is really difficult to organize massive campaigns throughout the whole country.
However, the COVID lockdown actually, in a way, helped these protests to emerge. So I would say that, ironically, the Chinese government’s strict implementations of control made something that was impossible, possible.
The protesters' demands ranged from ending strict COVID lockdown to political change. Someone even chanted “end with CCP” and “end with Xi Jinping,” but it's difficult to assess the ratio of those people. It could be that many were simply wanting to end the COVID lockdown, and maybe those who demanded a systematic change could be a minority among those voices. It is really difficult to assess because we don't have open data and we can't conduct a poll.
Still, at the end of the day, I think it is really impressive, because we're witnessing these movements in a digital authoritarian state; where the Orwellian, 1984, comparison is actually an understatement, if you think about how sophisticated and technologically advanced the whole surveillance system in mainland China is. Under such conditions, people are still there to march, still there to express their dissents. This is already really remarkable in itself.
It is too soon to say whether it has ended or whether it has the potential to shake the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, but it indeed had a huge impact on mainland China. And, of course, in mobilizing liberal Chinese nationals overseas.
As you mentioned, it didn't happen in just one place, but it happened simultaneously in different places. How do you think that happened?
Well, it was possible because everyone felt the same pain. Even though they marched out with a piece of blank paper, everyone immediately understood what it meant. That shared experience of pain is what helped the decentralized movement possible.
When we think about a movement, we tend to think we at least need to have a collective goal, organized demands, etc., but in China's context, it’s difficult to organize them. Even if you have demands, you can't really take them to the streets, because for example, if you bring out a sign criticizing the government's policy, you will be taken away immediately. It was a tactful move to hold flowers or pieces of blank paper or even nothing. Because then, it is relatively more difficult for the police to remove you.
People have all experienced years of lockdown. Families have died. They didn't have enough food most of the time. So when they saw something like this (the 2022 Urumqi fire), they immediately empathized and there was a resonance from across the country. That is why even with the absence of communication, organization, or leadership, protesters sprang out like they all shared the same understanding. The whole billion people in mainland China’s sharing of collective trauma from the lockdown eventually became the base of the massive protests around the whole country.
You’ve mentioned this a little bit, but is there also a shared sense of resistance or objection against the party or the leader in these protests?
I don't think we have clear evidence of the movement having consensual demands about ending the political system and ending the dictatorship. This actually gave an advantage to the government: when they introduced some relaxations of the COVID control, that may have had an impact in dispersing the movement. It left people wondering: with more lax COVID restrictions, will there still be people on the streets to protest?
But indeed, even if there is no consensus, the fact that there’s still a part of them demanding political change is really significant because we haven't heard about it in China for many, many years, about people publicly denouncing the Chinese party. So I think it shows the party is losing some legitimacy there. Lots of people are upset about them, and the people want change.
The Chinese government did relax some COVID restrictions. Can this be viewed as the government reacting to the people’s demands? Do you think it’s meaningful?
Before the protests broke out, the government had already signaled they are going to relax a bit on the COVID lockdown. But did the protest accelerate that? I think yes. The Chinese government also wants to make more concessions to show that they listen to the people, to show that they are being held accountable to the people. But I think definitely they are going to face a lot of challenges because of how they have been narrating the whole COVID pandemic beforehand, how they said that living with COVID is not possible. I think it is not going to be an easy path for them.
I also wanted to ask you about your feeling about seeing people rising up and protesting with blank sheets of paper; because it's actually a strategy that came from Hong Kong in 2020. How did you feel, seeing the legacy of Hong Kong continuing in mainland China as well?
Well, probably I don't put it that way, because I doubt whether they have seen the news (about blank paper protests in Hong Kong), because all the information about Hong Kong protests is censored in mainland China. Rather, I think the tactics have naturally come out from the experience of living in a system full of censorship and surveillance. It is one way to be more protected from persecution from the government. If you are writing demands on the paper and you bring it onto the street, you will be arrested immediately. But if you're holding a blank paper, everyone knows what you want to say, the government is not able to arrest you immediately, and we have a start of a protest.
So I think it actually reflects a sad reality. In mainland China, censorship and surveillance of the people are really intense, to a point that they cannot express themselves fully. Even if they want to protest, they can only say convoluted things, or nothing, just like holding a piece of blank paper. So I think that actually reflected speech control, and all social control in mainland China.
Solidarity across Ethnicity and Border
Have you been following up with the people in Hong Kong or overseas Hong Kong communities? What are their reactions to what's happening in mainland China?
Well, the reactions have been quite diverse. Some of them don't really pay attention to it, because there's a growing sense of Hong Kong identity and sometimes they don't pay attention to what's happening in mainland China. On the other hand, they're also a group of people who identify with them on the basis of values that they're pursuing, like freedom and democracy. So we try to amplify their voice.
And also, there are lots of Chinese nationals who are studying or living overseas that have been mobilized. Some Hong Kongers abroad have been involved in helping them organize events, share experiences, etc. So I think there are Hong Kong communities around the world that are actively helping to amplify their voice and try to gather more international attention.
Even in Seoul last week, Chinese students in Korea also protested. How can people overseas show solidarity with what's going on in mainland China, including Korean citizens or other nationals?
Well, I think everyone can show their support to them because I would imagine that people in mainland China must feel lonely because their communication tools are being monitored and they cannot truly share their feelings with their friends. Even if we have events overseas, it's difficult for them to read the news about them.
But at least I think we can remind the world that there are people in mainland China that are not aligned with the Chinese Communist Party, and that CCP does not represent all Chinese people. I think this carries an important implication for the world, and the Chinese nationals living overseas.
In foreign countries, it's really important to engage with Chinese nationals there. Most of the time, they are the best and the brightest of the country. Most of the top students in mainland China tend to study abroad. If we can change them in a massive way, if they are influenced by these liberal and democratic values, even though we cannot change the system in a glimpse, we can still plant the seeds of a potential change in the future.
The Chinese government has been talking about foreign interventions as the driving force behind these protests. What is your reaction to this?
Any opposition voice in mainland China would be categorized by the party as ignited by foreign forces because the party wants to portray that no one in mainland China would oppose them if there were no foreign intervention. These are the propaganda and stigmatization tactics, as happened in Hong Kong and elsewhere.
It is really clear that the Chinese people have their agency and voice, and they protest for themselves because of what they've been through. And I saw a video of a Chinese national reacting to this accusation, which was really on point. He says, “not that they can browse the internet or the news, how could they be influenced by foreign forces? They can't be in contact with anything from foreign countries. By “foreign intervention,” are they talking about Marxism?” It was really sarcastic.
The issue is that people don't believe in these narratives. But still, the Chinese government has to say it that way because they don't want to admit that people have legitimate reasoning abilities. The people have legitimate concerns for their country.
I think the Chinese government is nervous about the protests on domestic soil, but also about the mobilization of Chinese students who are studying overseas. They are really a driving force. And the party is definitely worried about how organized and how determined they are.
On the party's discourse on nationalism, I've seen your tweet recently where you mentioned that “the people are bigger than the nation, and justice bigger than patriotism.” Could you expand on that?
Patriotism is something that comes naturally to people, but we also have to think about where the basis comes from. If the basis is authoritarianism and worshipping dictators, then you must put on the pursuit of justice and democratic values above that. Those democratic values are what really protect us, and what makes patriotism valuable.
What I try to communicate with Chinese nationals is this point, because most of their life, they talk about how they should love their country and the party, but never about “what if the party goes wrong?” What should they do if the party does not represent justice? If they represent repression? And that’s the kind of communication that I try to have to make them understand more about why we should uphold these values and why that doesn’t contradict their patriotism. I think people have the right and power to make wrong things right when the government is too stubborn to change.
The Chinese party has been persecuting minority groups. However, I think what was very significant was that the people were reacting to what happened in Urumchi, where most of the persecuted minority groups live. Does this give you any hope of the people in China transcend the lines of ethnicity or nationalism, and unite for the cause of freedom?
It's difficult to see that inside mainland China in their narratives because I don't think I've seen many mentions of Uyghurs or the ethnicity of the people who passed away in the fire. They were just thinking that it was a tragedy caused by the COVID lockdown, which they are also experiencing. I think it was the collective experience of pain that was the trigger.
But among many overseas Chinese students and nationals, in solidarity protests, it is true that people stood up to make speeches about how they were sorry about neglecting the persecution of the Uyghurs. Some Chinese students apologized publicly to the persecuted Uyghurs and said that they were wrong about it.
The Chinese government has been forging an image of minority groups as troublemakers, such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Hong Kongers, and has been causing hatred among people through propaganda. When we listen to some of the stories shared by the Uyghur people, they share about how the Chinese government manipulated social incidents to paint them as terrorists. Han people, the dominant ethnicity of China, have a deep hatred for Uyghurs in that region. This is definitely what an authoritarian or totalitarian government wants. They want the whole population to police on the government’s behalf and suppress the minorities to prevent rebellions. It is really contradictory to what we believe in, as we believe in social harmony, national equality, and integration.
This protest opened up many questions to Chinese nationals who are overseas, who have been spending their lives in mainland China receiving education from the government and believing in their propaganda. And they started to reflect on their previous beliefs.
That reminds me of what happened in Myanmar. Traditionally, the main Burmese people have not been treating the minority groups well, but as they were all uniting for the cause of democracy and freedom, the Burmese people started apologizing for their past wrongdoings to the minority groups. And when they formed the National Unity Government, they included a lot of minorities as leaders of cabinets.
Yeah, well, when we talk about democracies, there's a basket of values attached to it, like diversity, empathy, and understanding of minorities. When we talk about a political change, it’s also about the political culture, values, and beliefs that we all share. So in a democratic movement, we see these values blossom, which is a beautiful thing.
What Keeps Nathan Law Up
How can the “blank paper protests” catch on or build momentum?
We have a limited influence in mainland China because of all their social controls, but we can definitely engage with Chinese students abroad and try to make sure that they have their own voices and they are energized and empowered. For the Hong Kong people, we have to preserve and grow our diasporic community to become more critical of the Chinese Communist Party.
In general, we can do a lot of things from our end, and we just have to believe that “no action is meaningless.” In democratic revolutions in Korea and Taiwan, there were lots of small efforts accumulating together to create a big change. I don’t think we’re coming to a point where we can see a massive change in mainland China very soon; that is definitely not going to be in a few years. What we can do is accumulate our influence.
Usually, big political changes in countries come with big political changes in the world. There will be critical moments to come, and the more we are prepared, the more we can capitalize on those moments. We shouldn't just stop because we cannot see things changing soon, and that should be our mentality. And we just have to continue to do our part and do meaningful things.
Sometimes it’s a very tiring process when you can’t see the results. Still, you remain committed to your mission. What keeps you going, and what keeps you hopeful?
It just became a natural part of my life. I define activism as giving part of life to a collective cause that enhances society. Whether the result comes through or not, I’m determined to be committed to this long path of vocation. The question for me is not whether I will stay on this path or not, but how I can facilitate that process. How I can be part of the change, whether in a long way or a short way. That’s what I think about.
Many on this path will also see this as a vocation. They don’t have to have a clear path to drive them, they just know they have to go there. I’m just trying to do my best in my position with what I can do.
We were worried that asking this would be somewhat of a naive question, as we are in a relatively comfortable position and enjoy the privilege of freedom of expression in Korea.
But that privilege is at the expense of many people who sacrificed decades ago. I also learned a lot about it from the movie, Taxi Driver, of the meaning of “no action is meaningless.” The movie depicts ordinary citizens from humble backgrounds, just trying their best to do their parts. And when they do so, they are playing a key role in a historical change. The movie is about people following their conscience, with just a gut feeling about what’s right from wrong. It was actually quite influential a few years back in Hong Kong when it was able to be on air. I don’t think cinemas nowadays dare to play movies like this.
Do you have anything that you want to say to the Korean readers that might read this interview?
I understand the difficult position the Korean government is in terms of geopolitics and socio-economic concerns to keep a rather close distance from the Chinese government. But I think that Korea has a very strong civil society. I hope to interact with them more and to receive more support in the Hong Kong movement and in the protests in mainland China as well.
I've been to Korea a few times, and on one occasion, I interacted with startups, media, and political advocacy groups. They were very concerned with what was happening in Hong Kong and in mainland China. So I really do hope that I could pay a visit there sometime next year. So let's see whether we can do it.
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