Hong Kong Activist Nathan Law Explains Pro-Democracy Protests

Nathan Law
Nathan Law (right) is a prominent activist in the ongoing Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

On November 15, 2019, activist Nathan Law GRD ’20 spoke about his involvement in the escalating protests in Hong Kong and the future of the region’s pro-democracy movement. The Schell Center for International Human Rights hosted the event titled, “Hong Kong on the Brink: A Struggle for Survival.”

Law, who is currently a graduate student at Yale University in East Asian Studies, was a leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which advocated for democracy and self-determination in Hong Kong. He was one of the movement’s five representatives who took part in dialogue around political reform with the Hong Kong government and is a cofounder of Demosistō, a pro-democracy organization initially established as a political party, and Network of Young Democratic Asians (NOYDA). In 2016, Law was elected to the Hong Kong Island constituency as the youngest Legislative Councilor in history. Beijing overturned his seat in 2017, and Law was later jailed for his participation in the Umbrella Movement that year.

In his presentation, Law discussed his activism, Hong Kong’s history, and recent developments in the ongoing protests. According to Law, the protests were spurred by Hong Kong residents’ dissatisfaction with their current government. He cited data showing that the approval rate for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong sits at just 19.8 percent. Eighty-eight percent of the population, Law said, supports an “independent investigation on police brutality” and 81 percent supports democracy, but these demands have yet to be fulfilled.

The current discontent, Law suggested, has its roots in Hong Kong’s transition away from British colonial rule. The United Kingdom ceded authority over Hong Kong to China in 1997. During British rule, Law explained that Hong Kong residents had enjoyed expanded freedoms and were “gradually approaching democracy.” When China took control of the territory, Law said, Hong Kong residents were worried about their future.

The Beijing government made a series of promises to alleviate these anxieties, Law said. As Hong Kong and China transitioned to the “one country, two systems” structure, residents of Hong Kong were assured that they would “enjoy a high degree of autonomy and democracy in the future” under the agreement. “Things didn’t happen how we imagined,” Law said.

Hong Kong “experienced a time of faith” until 2003, Law said, when mainland China introduced national security legislation that “would hamper freedom of speech and create political persecution.” Following protests, conditions only worsened. Law said that 2014 “marked the era of civil disobedience in Hong Kong,” prompted by Beijing’s release of a white paper claiming “complete jurisdiction” over the territory. “The white paper killed the possibility of Hong Kong people getting democracy,” Law argued.

In 2014, “people weren’t wearing masks,” Law noted, which he said demonstrated that “they still had faith in the government that they would not arrest arbitrarily.” At that time, Law participated in negotiations with the government, but soon became convinced of the “futility of talking to the government.” Law argued that government officials were “going into the negotiation with the premise that they would be upholding what they wanted,” rather than compromising with the protesters.

Between 2014 and 2017, Law described escalating human rights violations against dissenters. Backed by a “youth-led political party,” Law responded by running for a seat in the legislature. When he won, he said, Beijing issued a reinterpretation of the constitution in order to overturn his seat. However, in Hong Kong, the right of constitutional interpretation, Law explained, “lies in the standing committee of the National People’s Congress.” Law argued that this rendered his disqualification illegitimate.

Law characterized the disappearance of booksellers in 2015 as a turning point for Hong Kong. The disappearances, he said, sparked rage because “personal safety is a fundamental human right.” He also highlighted the Beijing government’s attempts to implement extradition as key concerns for Hong Kong residents. An extradition bill was formally introduced in March 2019, which would allow the Hong Kong government to extradite criminal suspects to mainland China. Many Hong Kong residents feared the proposed bill would expose them to China's justice system, which is functionally and structurally different from Hong Kong’s under the “one country, two systems” policy. Law contended that the extradition bill is a “huge violation” of the “one country, two systems” agreement. To Law, the bill was “the fuel that ignited the anger of the movement.”

The conflict continued to escalate through 2017, when Law was also jailed for his participation in the 2014 Umbrella Movement along with other political prisoners. During that time, he showed the audience on a graph, public confidence in the “one country, two systems” agreement dropped significantly.

“For the past 30 years, the Hong Kong people and the Beijing government have not been able to resolve this conflict, leading to the explosion of anger in June that evolved to the current state of the movement,” Law said. He noted that the largest protest in June, which urged the withdrawal of the extradition bill China introduced in March 2019, was attended by over two million protesters.

Law showed images of massive crowds of protestors on Hong Kong’s streets and confrontation scenes between protesters and police. Mere days before his presentation, another police raid occurred at a Hong Kong university. Law played a video of the raid, which showed police using rubber bullets and, he asserted, 1,500 cans of tear gas. He also showed images of a recent incident in which protesters set a major bridge on fire. Law explained that there has been an “escalation of forces from both sides” and “no one seems to have any clue on what the future of Hong Kong will be.”

The police raid days before his presentation represented an increase in the use of force, Law argued. He showed clips of police firing ammunition at “bare-handed” protesters, and he said that more than 3,000 protesters have been arrested. Included in the thousands are 700 student protesters and 750 people under the age of 18, according to Law. “No single police officer is held accountable,” Law said.

In response to the police’s aggression, Law explained that the people of Hong Kong have “reacted with creativity,” hanging banners from mountainsides, holding hands on waterfronts and streets, and posting notes on train station walls. After five months of intense conflict, Law said he is worried about the shrinking legitimacy of Hong Kong’s judicial system, ongoing police brutality, and repression of academic freedom.

In his concluding remarks, Law emphasized that “Hong Kong is in a difficult battle” where “there are huge power imbalances” between the Hong Kong government, the Beijing government, and the people of Hong Kong. However, Law observed that the people of Hong Kong are “not alone in such a global fight” against the “revival of tyranny and the recession of democracy.”

“The liberal world should be reminded that freedom requires eternal vigilance,” Law told the audience. “We need to constantly monitor the use of power,” Law said, adding that “freedom is not to be taken for granted.”