From Politician to Prisoner: Nathan Law’s Harrowing Journey to Save Hong Kong’s Democracy

Interviewed by David Naftulin. 

I spoke with upcoming 2021 Geneva Summit speaker Nathan Law (GS’21), a pioneering Hong Kong activist. Nathan rose to prominence as a leader of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. Nathan was later imprisoned, sparking global concern over Beijing’s crackdown on human rights. Despite being forced to leave Hong Kong due to persecution for his confrontational activism, he continues to be a leading voice for the people of Hong Kong. Nathan was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by members of U.S. Congress and British Parliament in 2018, and was listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2020 by TIME Magazine.

Nathan Law will speak at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, taking place on June 7-8. Participation is free but registration is mandatory. Register now to secure your spot.


You have been an activist since your early years as a student at Lingnan University, eventually becoming the president of the university’s student union. During this time, you emerged as a leader in Hong Kong’s developing pro-democracy movement. What life experiences or events sparked your passion for activism at such an early age, and why did you get involved?

I grew up in a working-class family. My parents never talked about policies or politics to me when I was growing up. So I didn’t get so much exposure to these ideas until I was in secondary school, which I think was around 2010. When Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, I didn’t know who he was or what it meant. But then, because I was studying in a pro-Beijing school, the school principal talked about it the next day on the stage and basically said bad things about him, denouncing him. So I was actually curious because I didn’t know what he had done, but I knew that laureates of Nobel Prizes are the ones who are excellent in their field. So how come such an individual is being criticized given that he was rewarded for the activism that he was doing? And that kind of opened up the gates for me to understand what democracy is, what human rights are, and what freedom is.

Eventually, when I got to university, there was a huge sentiment in the Hong Kong society as a whole to fight for democracy because we were discussing political reform. We wanted our Chief Executive election in 2017 to be held with universal suffrage. I guess I was also being drawn into the movement by this larger atmosphere, eventually taking up a larger and larger responsibility throughout the time.

While you were still a student, you became a founder of the student-led 2014 Umbrella Movement. This mass protest was one of the early tests for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, and brought widespread international attention to the situation in Hong Kong. What impact did your experience leading the Umbrella Movement have on you, and what do you see as the movement’s successes and failures?

The Umbrella Movement in 2014 was specifically a civil disobedience movement by occupying major roadways of Hong Kong in order to pressure the government in Hong Kong, even though eventually the government did not keep their word. Democracy was not implemented in Hong Kong, and still, for now, the political system of the society is getting more and more authoritarian. But I think in 2014, we planted a seed of civil disobedience as a way that we conceptualize the relationship of an individual to the society. When the society fails us, when the legal system and the regime failed us by not committing to what they promised — which was preserving Hong Kong’s autonomy, freedoms, and implementing democracy — we have the right to be heard, and we have the right to resist, even though it means that you have to break certain unjust laws to make your point and to pressure the government.

Before that, there had not been major civil disobedience movements in Hong Kong emerging. And the concept of breaking the law to achieve justice was so rare for Hong Kong people. So I think the Umbrella Movement indeed planted that into Hong Kong people’s hearts and opened up a chapter of resistance that deeply influenced the resistance movement that we had in 2019.

After the 2014 protests, you founded a new political party called Demosisto along with your fellow activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow. You ran on a platform calling for a referendum to uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy after the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement expires in 2047. You were elected in 2016 to the Hong Kong Legislative Council, becoming the youngest-ever member of Hong Kong’s legislature. Of course, your presence created an immediate controversy and push-back from pro-Beijing lawmakers, who expelled you from the legislature in 2017. Why did you make the decision to run for elected office in the Hong Kong Legislature, and did you expect the significant repression that would follow your election?

The reason why I founded Demosisto with Joshua and Agnes was because we thought that we needed to inject a kind of youth energy into the established political scene because a lot of criticism that then was accusing Hong Kong politics says “old people politics.” There weren’t many young faces or much young energy, and, also, we wanted to inherit the spirit of the Umbrella Movement. So we wanted people who can represent the movement to be involved in parliamentary politics. So, by then, they decided to run, and we achieved what we had planned, even though eventually I was unseated — cast out by the Chinese Communist Party because they just don’t want me, as a figure of the resistance movement, to stay in the parliament.

“Hong Kong people have never been asking something that is nonexistent. These are promises Beijing made and that should be kept.”

But after nine months of hard work, I’ve performed and convinced Hong Kong people that protest leaders are not only good at chanting slogans, but they are experienced and knowledgeable to talk about policies and to make the city better. We are not only people who only know to reject or oppose but people who can also build and move forward. So I think that was the meaning of me being involved in parliamentary politics at that age — and also to prove a point that, as a protest leader, we can do something more. But, of course, the way that we perceived Hong Kong is as an autonomous city but continuously under the threat of the Chinese Communist Party — and our autonomy is always at risk — so that we propose that Hong Kong people should have the ability to decide its future.

This goes back to our history. In the 1980s, when there was a British and Sino-British joint negotiation on Hong Kong’s future after 1997, where it was the time Hong Kong should be handed back from the British government to the Chinese government, there were negotiations on jobs and talks about Hong Kong’s future, but Hong Kong people in general never were consulted. I think that was a major problem that led to the problems that we have now, where, in the system that acts at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party, there are no checks and balances on the use of power from the Beijing government. And if they are there to destroy Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy, they could do it relatively easily because there are no mechanisms for us to hold them accountable and to deter them from teeing off our way of life and their promises made to us at this point. So I guess the main point is: Hong Kong people have never been asking something that is nonexistent. These are promises Beijing made and that should be kept for Hong Kong people who want to be living in an autonomous city that is free from the political intimidation of the Beijing government at the hands of dictators.

After your anti-democratic expulsion from the Hong Kong legislature in 2017, you were jailed along with others on politically-motivated charges. What were your experiences with law enforcement during this time, and what lessons did you take from going up against a politically-compromised judicial system?

I was imprisoned a month after I was outcast from the legislature. You could just imagine going from a so-called “honorable” legislator to degraded to a cellmate in prison. It took one month. So, for me, it was difficult to digest and contemplate on the one hand. On the other hand, I actually had some mental preparation about jail time because, in a growing authoritarian city, it is not unexpected that activists have to go through jail time because of the government’s suppression and because of what you upheld. So, even though that came as relatively shocking, I guess, for me, I had the mental preparation to go for it, and during the time of staying in jail, I tried to stay calm and treat it with a normal mind. And eventually, when I got out, I didn’t really think that it had crushed me or it had downsized my pursuit for democracy. So I think, at the end of the day, for a lot of local activists — and especially for those who are facing trials or even in jail — we recognize that, on the pathway of activism, jail time is inevitable because of how authoritarian or even totalitarian the Chinese government is. And what we can do is try to treat it as a detour or as a pitstop of our activism and try to stay calm and move on.

I was lucky enough that I did not encounter any mistreatment or torturing or relevant kinds of things because I had a certain profile, and I was quite well-known, and people pay attention to me. It’s difficult for them to do things like that in order to tarnish the so-called political neutrality that they have always pretended to possess. But I know that there are lots of the other cases with less well-known activists and protesters who are mistreated in prison, facing a lot of beating, insulting, or even, for many of the cases, being locked in solitary confinement without any explanation. I guess the time when I was in jail was four years ago, and the political sentiment was different. For now, the whole system in Hong Kong is more inclined to Beijing’s agenda and ideology, and what they are experiencing in jail and on the protest side is definitely much more difficult than what I had experienced in 2017. This is a growing concern for all those Hong Kong people.

“For me, I will continue this work no matter what intimidation and how much of it I will receive.”

As you know, Chinese authorities passed a purported ‘national security law’ last year, broadly criminalizing anyone that the regime arbitrarily labels as committing ‘subversion,’ ‘terrorism’ or ‘colluding with foreign forces.’ This law has led to the arrests of over 100 people, banned your political party Demosisto, caused you to flee in fear of arrest, and has since led to the creation of a warrant for your arrest if you were to return to Hong Kong. Since you left, the law has cemented a culture of fear among Hong Kong’s activists and dissidents. Where does the Hong Kong democracy movement go from here? How can the people of Hong Kong overcome the national security law’s repressive implications?

Yes, the proposition of having a “national security law” in Hong Kong was a shock to the community and to the Hong Kong society as a whole because it circumvented all the local legislation and consultation process. Even the Hong Kong government officials didn’t know what it would look like before it was officially implemented. You can really see that it was hasty legislation, and it was a top agenda of the Chinese Communist Party, and Hong Kong people were refused the information about it before they could see the draft of it. And the whole legislation process was only two months, so you can see the Chinese government used two months to impose such a draconian law that affects so many of the Hong Kong people, and we were not even consulted. It was definitely a blow to the community and the way Beijing intervenes into our local affairs. And, by then, I definitely had a detailed contemplation on whether I should leave because it was difficult to make the decision of leaving the hometown that you have fought for — and you have committed yourself into the future of it.

On the other hand, I think that, after the implementation of the national security law, the international advocacy work in Hong Kong will be gone because, under the law, it criminalized speech concerning any international engagement and the voice of harsher policies towards China. So, by then, I think we needed to sustain the international advocacy fronts that we had been doing since the 2019 protest movement, and I think that we needed an international figure who could speak on the international level and raise the awareness of Hong Kong issues. So, just a few days before the implementation of the national security law, I decided to flee from Hong Kong to London and continue my advocacy work.

Even from outside of Hong Kong, you continue to face pushback from CCP-affiliated groups around the world, including on university campuses. Just last week, your appearance at the University of Chicago created a notable controversy, with one student organization accusing you of “glorifying violence” and being an “extremist.” How have these efforts impacted Hong Kong democracy activists, and have any of these efforts succeeded?

I think most parts of the democratic societies are aware of the growing oppression of the Chinese Communist Party and have been having lots of policies to counter it. I think, in general, since 2019, the international advocacy work on Hong Kong’s protest movement and the way we have been paying attention to human rights violations in Mainland China have been quite successful and have turned the tides of being benign to the Chinese Communist Party and trying to appease them to a much more tough and assertive approach and holding them accountable. So I think, yes, from time to time there are a lot of extended arms from the Chinese Communist Party in Western democratic societies that try to silence us and that try to intimidate us from appearing in the public, but I think, for me, that is my role to play.

The more they have committed these barbaric activities, the more the world recognizes the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party and shifts their attitude to a more assertive one in order to address the human rights violations in Mainland China and also support the Hong Kong democratic movement. For me, I will continue this work no matter what intimidation and how much of it I will receive. And I think this is the way that Hong Kong could be a focal point of the world and to continue their fight.

The Biden Administration in the United States has thus far pursued a multilateral approach to pressure China on Hong Kong, while continuing to recognize Hong Kong’s autonomy that was also supported under the previous Trump Administration. How do you feel that the Biden Administration is approaching the issue of Hong Kong? And if there are shortcomings, what more should the Administration be doing?

I think the China policy is one of the few policies, if not the only one, that has continuity between the two administrations. And I think the multilateral approach that the Biden administration has been doing is quite successful, although there are also forces of collaboration or a more tender way of seeing the China policy in the US. But I think, in general, they are walking in the right direction. We need a coalition of democratic countries to combat the rise of authoritarianism worldwide, and the rise of Chinese authoritarianism is the utmost issue that we should address. So only by having solidarity between democratic countries can we address the problem of global democratic recession and the expansion of Chinese aggression. I think that direction should be extended and with more scrutiny on Chinese infiltration into democratic soils and also with more support to democratic protesters from around the world. I think this is the way that we should move forward.

Around the world, there are millions of people standing in solidarity with Hong Kong. What tangible steps can we take to help the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and fight back against China’s tightening grip?

I think it’s important that we realize the source of the suppression of Hong Kong’s protests is the aggression of the Chinese Communist Party, and, from time to time, there are lots of things that we could do to address the problem. For example, there was the Xinjiang cotton controversy, and the Chinese government punished all those companies who refused to use the forced labor cotton in Xinjiang, and that was hugely defied in the international community. And, as consumers, we can support those companies who were standing their ground who refused to use the Xinjiang cotton and have a boycott on those who are continuously using it. On the other hand, there are a lot of Hong Kong organizations around the world — there are overseas communities and exiled communities. You can always reach out to them to ask them whether there are activities, protests, or actions that you could join.

And also, to your local legislator, it is important that we translate our demands on the street to the legislatures of these democratic countries. In the US, we’ve been successfully pushing for numerous bills in support of Hong Kong and the protestors. So I think talking to your legislators, telling them that you are aware of the issue and you want to support Hong Kong makes them more motivated to do so — if there are a number in the electorate that talk to them about that thing. There are lots of things that we could do, and we should be very aware of the Chinese aggression. And the very first thing is to make it into your way of life, to see it as part of your life. When you go buy something—when you buy a service or product—just be reminded of that. Don’t support the Chinese regime by doing so.