Hong Kong Activist Nathan Law “We All Know that Danger Is Everywhere”

In an interview, Nathan Law, one of the leaders of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, discusses the transformation of the special administrative region into a police state. He also talks about his new life in London and his hopes for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Interview Conducted By Jörg Schindler
Hong Kong activist Nathan Law

Hong Kong activist Nathan Law

Foto: Ossi Piispanen / DER SPIEGEL

Nathan Law, 27, has spent the past seven years fighting China’s gradual takeover of Hong Kong. In 2017, he and other activists were sentenced to prison after thousands of Hong Kong citizens joined together to form the umbrella movement and called for free elections. In 2016, Law’s election to the Hong Kong parliament was declared invalid on dubious grounds. He fled to London this year after Beijing enacted a new national security law for Hong Kong on June 30. The law is directed against activities deemed to be subversive, separatist or terrorist from a Chinese perspective, and security forces have gained unprecedented power as a result.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Law, you left Hong Kong at about the same time the new Chinese national security law was imposed. Was that a personal or a political decision?

Law: It was a bit of both. Of course, every one of us with a high-profile position in international advocacy work is very vulnerable under the national security law.

DER SPIEGEL: Who are you referring to when you say "us”?

Law: Joshua Wong, for example, and Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, and others. It has become very difficult for us to continue our work and, for example, demand a strategy of less appeasement to China. So, I talked with Joshua and we agreed that I am suitable for bearing the role of being an advocate of Hong Kong outside Hong Kong. Here, I can speak freely.

DER SPIEGEL: How has the situation in Hong Kong developed since the security law came into effect?

Law: There is a politics of fear and terror dispersing. Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen because the law deliberately leaves so much room for interpretation. And I don’t think that the security bureau has actually established themselves to operate fully at this stage -- we are only in the very first weeks. But they have already arrested individuals who were merely in possession of stickers or flags with the words "Free Hong Kong, revolution of our time.”

DER SPIEGEL: The slogan of the democracy movement.

Law: Some of my friends are deleting their Facebook posts. They are concerned, especially for their families. Many people are testing the waters, really guessing where the line is. So, the law is encouraging political fear and people self-censoring and the erosion of our freedom of expression and assembly.

DER SPIEGEL 33/2020

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 33/2020 (August 8, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

DER SPIEGEL: What are your thoughts on the Hong Kong government delaying the election that had been planned for September for one year?

Law: The reason the government delayed the election is that the government is afraid of losing and is trying to buy time to reverse its very low popularity. I don’t think it will work -- people will still be very angry with them as long as they are still deploying heavy-handed approaches in Hong Kong. It shows that the law and procedures in Hong Kong serve Beijing's political agenda. Hong Kong’s government is not accountable to the people and it's a puppet that is ordered to destroy the freedom of Hong Kong’s people.

DER SPIEGEL: Is the security law the nail in the coffin for the movement?

Law: I don’t think so. Actually, it will transform the movement in a more subtle form that circumvents the restriction. And you can see that there are a lot of people voicing their opposition despite COVID-19. The atmosphere in Hong Kong has changed. We’re in a period of quietness now, but it’s just a calm surface before the storm.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you concerned about your family?

Protesters and police in Hong Kong on May 24: "There is a politics of fear and terror dispersing."

Protesters and police in Hong Kong on May 24: "There is a politics of fear and terror dispersing."

Foto: Ivan Abreu / ZUMA WIRE / imago images

Law: Of course. If you look at the implementation of the national security law in mainland China, then it not only targets you -- but also your family, your friends, your colleagues.

DER SPIEGEL: You recently wrote in a newspaper column that your mother witnessed the Cultural Revolution and is about to witness another one. Isn’t that exaggerated? As many as 1.8 million people died during the Cultural Revolution.

Law: Well, I don’t want to claim that we are the most tragic people in history. But it is a cultural revolution because of the foreseeable transformation of society. We can already see the beginning of it. For example, in the national security law, there is a clause that, if you turn in someone else, you could have a reduction in your own sentence. That encourages a reporting culture. And that’s the thing that cultural revolutions emphasize -- people monitoring people. With no trust in society, the social bonds between people are getting destroyed and infiltrated with totalitarianism and the narrative of power.

DER SPIEGEL: What does your worst-case scenario look like?

Law: That none of us can run for election on a pro-democracy platform anymore. That the secret police arrest you in the early morning, and none of your friends know where you are. That you are being locked in a remote detention camp, being tortured, just like what happened to Chinese dissidents. That is the worst we can get. I see it as my responsibility to turn the fight against that into an international front.

DER SPIEGEL: As a kind of foreign minister of your movement?

Law: I wouldn’t put it that way. I am just trying to be a voice.

DER SPIEGEL: How did you spend your last day in Hong Kong?

Law: Like all the other days before. I met with my team and pretended to campaign in order to avoid worries. I needed to keep it secret because, if I were to be indicted and people helped me or they recognized my leaving, but didn’t turn me in, they would also have been in danger. I didn’t do anything special.

DER SPIEGEL: That can’t have been easy. You knew that you probably wouldn’t be able to return to Hong Kong for years.

Law: It was difficult. But sometimes, all you can do is hold back your emotions and try to be as calm as possible to protect others.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you have any troubles leaving the city?

Law: I thought I might have been blacklisted by the authorities, but it turned out I wasn’t. So, I left quite smoothly.

DER SPIEGEL: Why did you choose London?

Law: London is a very special place. I’ve been here a couple of times before. The United Kingdom has an historical relationship with Hong Kong, and they play a major role in dealing with the issue. And I think London as a media hub is good place to tell people that there is not only a warfare going on between China and the United States. Europe needs to become a more united values-bound front against the authoritarianism in China.

Law during his interview with DER SPIEGEL journalist Jörg Schindler: "The global community needs to act as a coherent front whenever they do business with China: to enforce human rights, to hold them accountable."

Law during his interview with DER SPIEGEL journalist Jörg Schindler: "The global community needs to act as a coherent front whenever they do business with China: to enforce human rights, to hold them accountable."

Foto: Ossi Piispanen / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Do you feel safe in London?

Law: We all know that danger is everywhere because China’s reach could be really extensive. I’ve just read news about a New Zealand car crash that killed two Chinese dissidents, and the authorities found it very suspicious. So, you have to be extremely cautious about the surroundings and move frequently, trying not to expose yourself too much.

DER SPIEGEL: Is that why we are meeting here in Regent’s Park.

Law: That’s one reason. The other is, it’s beautiful here. I love how green London is.

DER SPIEGEL: But even here, you are in some ways surrounded by China everywhere. When you land at Heathrow Airport, take a black cab into the city, eat at Pizza Express or watch a Premier League game with the Wolverhampton Warriors, Chinese money is involved everywhere.

Law: Yes, I think the West has long underestimated what’s happening with that kind of investment. There is no such thing as independent companies in China. They all have to listen to the orders of the Communist Party. That’s why the global community needs to act as a coherent front whenever they do business with China: to enforce human rights, to hold them accountable.

DER SPIEGEL: How would you judge the British government’s recent approach toward Beijing?

Law: They are moving in the right direction. And fast. At the beginning of this year, the U.K. government said it will continue using Huawei for its 5G network, but it changed course completely in several months after the pandemic and after the Hong Kong protests. But in order to address the internal human rights violations in mainland China and the brutality in Hong Kong as well as in Xinjiang, there are a lot more things the UK and others could do.

DER SPIEGEL: Such as?

Law: For example, boycotting the Winter Olympics in 2022. That would really be a strong signal. As would be recognizing Taiwan and addressing the human rights violations in Xinjiang. You could impose laws stating that companies that use Xinjiang labor should not be allowed in your country. We’ve got a lot of tools, and Germany as China’s biggest trading partner could play a crucial role in this debate.

DER SPIEGEL: But the Germans are clearly trying not to get into any trouble with Beijing.

Law: It wouldn't be appropriate for us to say we are disappointed by Germany. But we know the history of Germany as a champion of liberal values after the Wall came down, its understanding of the problem of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. We are talking about a country that has supposedly embraced democratic values more than the others, but they are still prioritizing trade far more than human rights. The least the German government could do is suspend the extradition deal with Hong Kong as the UK has done. When it comes to preserving democratic values, Germany is a very symbolic place. Chancellor Merkel should know that.

Germans are "still prioritizing trade far more than human rights."

DER SPIEGEL: What are your future plans?

Law: I don’t have any plans because I don’t even know how long I will stay in London. Our movement as a whole changed very rapidly -- its narrative, its direction, the reaction of the government, the reaction of the world -- and these factors will influence my choice.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you considering setting up some sort of parliament in exile?

Law: No. I don’t think a parliament in exile could be as powerful as the ones on the ground. As long as I feel there is a way of mandating activists in Hong Kong, my work is to support them. My duty is to be the last speaker of the Hong Kong people, should the government continue silencing the others.

DER SPIEGEL: When you took your oath as the first elected Hong Kong legislator of the movement in 2016, you quoted Gandhi: "You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.” Is Gandhi a role model for you?

Law: Yes. Gandhi, Dr. King, Mandela, they were all honorable figures of resistance. There is a lot to learn from them, especially the tenacity when they faced difficulties, when you’re in jail for years and you still continue to be calm and committed to your cause. I think that kind of mental power is something that we really have to learn from.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you scared personally?

Law: I am worried. But I try not to be scared because that will affect your judgment. And I am much more worried about Joshua Wong and the others. That’s why I am trying to make sure that the eyes of the world are watching Hong Kong – it’s the best protection they can hope for.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you ever thought about giving up?

Law: Giving up is a very fake term. I spent a year at Yale University before the coronavirus hit. Some people might see that as a retreat from the movement, but the training I got during that year helped me to overcome the difficulties while I’m embarking on my new life in London, getting more prepared in terms of negotiability, knowledge, the way to deal with Western culture, things like that. As long as you have the heart and mind to fight for Hong Kong, you’re not giving up.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you miss most about Hong Kong?

Law: My family and my two cats. One is called Forty because I found her on 40th Street, the other one is Papa. They were stray cats. I rescued them.

DER SPIEGEL: There’s a pattern emerging here.

Law: And I also miss the atmosphere, being in a crowded place listening to people chit-chatting in Cantonese and smelling the street food. You could easily have access to traditional Cantonese cuisine or any kind of cuisine within a block and at an affordable price. All these things are irreplaceable.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Law, we thank you for this interview.

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