For the whole journey to the airport I worried that I’d be stopped at the border,” says Nathan Law, the exiled scion of pro-democracy activism, recalling his escape from Hong Kong to London this summer.
“Authoritarian countries always stop their activists from leaving.” Yet as he made it onto the plane, and “all the anxiety about whether I could leave safely just dropped away”, the adrenaline was replaced by a feeling of dread. “I was swallowed by a sense that I was leaving the place I see my eternal future, Hong Kong. And I have no idea when I could go back. It will take decades.”
Law cuts an unassuming figure. The slight, trim 27-year-old with rod-straight posture is dressed in a neat but toned-up shirt, jumper and spectacles, an architect’s aesthetic. Here is a man who has marched for justice in Hong Kong his entire adult life, been assaulted by pro-China activists, jailed by pro-China police, and has now been forced to flee his home, friends and family. He has become one of the faces of the Umbrella Movement, a leader of a generation of young people in Hong Kong who oppose authoritarianism.
The former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997, along with a constitutional guarantee of “one country, two systems”, a plan to conserve the city’s autonomy and independence. But in the last two decades, an increasingly authoritarian China has unpicked those freedoms almost entirely, from a teacher fired for mentioning independence in a classroom to teenagers arrested for waving “subversive” flags.
The forced introduction of a sweeping national security law in June by mainland China’s Communist Party — criminalising most forms of protest — presented Law with few options but to leave. “I’m walking a path that no one’s walked before as a Hong Konger, in opposition to the largest authoritarian country in the world.” Last month, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2020.
Even here in liberal London, Law worries for his safety. He’s moved house twice in two months and pauses abruptly when a couple speaking Mandarin pass us by from our unobtrusive bench on a drizzly day in Regent’s Park, a location suggested by Law. In recent months, Hong Kong’s mass pro-democracy protests have been snuffed out by the draconian security law. Thousands of police flooded streets there to quash demonstrations planned for China’s National Day last week, and peaceful protest is practically outlawed. “Every prominent activist in Hong Kong is in grave danger and worried about being arrested,” Law says. “There are protesters facing life and death on the ground.”
Some of them are his friends. The website Hong Kong Watch says that since June 9 last year, 10,016 people have been arrested in Hong Kong. Some 2,210 have been charged. Law’s fellow activist Joshua Wong was arrested and released on bail last month over a protest last year and for allegedly violating an anti-mask law. Their friend and campaigner Agnes Chow and pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai were arrested in August under the new national security law. Did he feel survivor’s guilt? “Yes,” he says mournfully. But “someone needed to be the voice for Hong Kong here”. He arrived with a six-month tourist visa and isn’t yet seeking asylum. He has not decided if he will do so when his tourist visa expires.
In June, Boris Johnson pledged to offer the right to live and work in the UK to three million Hong Kongers eligible for British national overseas passports. Law praises “nice” policies the UK Government has implemented: suspending the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extending a China arms embargo to ban sales to Hong Kong (and their police forces). Unsurprisingly, Beijing has warned the UK not to interfere. “It’s not over,” he says. “Our basic right of assembly and free expressions are being deprived.”
Meanwhile, one of Britain’s most senior judges, Lord Hodge, deputy president of the Supreme Court, has been accused of “adding legitimacy” to China’s crackdown by accepting a position on Hong Kong’s highest court.
Law is anxious that the country he loves will be lost irrevocably. “It’s not the Hong Kong we used to know. No critical thinking is allowed. That’s something Hong Kong people have not experienced. They’re freedom-loving people. They’re being shackled by Chinese authoritarian ideology. It suffocates them.” It’s a lonely life, being an activist in exile. Law has had no contact with friends or family. “I can scroll their [social media] feeds sometimes. It’s like looking through a window.” But social media is otherwise a toxic space for him.
“I’ve been attacked by the Chinese government. They have thousands of people coming into your Instagram or Facebook page to comment, to smear you and spread false information.” He doesn’t know if his parents, who divorced when Law was in high school, worry about him. He assumes so. “This path, it doesn’t really offer you a chance to reciprocate to your family, or bring stability.”
Why here? He could have sought refuge in the USA, where he was a graduate student in East Asian studies at Yale last year. “I flew to London to play the part of the voice of Hong Kong in the UK and Europe.”
He lives in fear of something like the recent Novichok poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny happening to him. “I just have no idea how the Communist Party will see me and [if] they’ll try to do something to me.” Does he get recognised? “Not really, because we always wear masks now. So it’s quite difficult to identify you if you’re following the rules.”
Law’s family were apolitical and so was he as a teenager. Mostly, he watched TV, and played football and computer games like Fifa. His father was a construction worker, his mother a street cleaner. So he grew up as one of three sons in a “mundane, ordinary working-class family”, moving to Hong Kong from Shenzhen, Guangdong in mainland China with his mother in 1999 to reunite with his father, who had gone ahead to find work.
“They were just trying to make a living and get some proper rest when they could. It wasn’t a pleasant growing-up period for me,” he says, looking sad.
It all changed when he went to university and became involved in the student movement, protesting against the national education law that visited a strict Communist Party ideology on the curriculum. “I’m worried for you even if you’re not,” his mother recalled saying to him in a 2017 New York Times interview. “If everyone is selfish, society will not change,” she recalled her son responding. He tells me he had no intention of becoming a leader. But if “there’s a void than you have to fill it”, he shrugs.
Law recalls both the 2014 Umbrella Revolution and last year’s Hong Kong protests as “bittersweet”. He was always on the frontline, microphone in hand, rallying demonstrators. “You see a lot of people paying the price to protest,” he says. The “ordinary routine” is that at 5am or 6am, police raid activists’ homes, “keep you out for 48 hours”, before pressing charges. “Then the courts decide whether you can be bailed.” Prison sentences are months or years. It’s a devastating moment for families and friends. “But on the other hand you are honoured to see there are a lot of like-minded people there to sacrifice themselves for the same cause that you believe in.”
In 2016 he stood for local office and won, becoming the youngest politician in the city’s history and representing the now disbanded Demosisto party that he co-founded with fellow activists Wong, Chow and others — but he was removed after he mocked the oath of office.
Worse, in August 2017, old charges against him relating to the 2014 protests were re-examined and he served two months at Tong Fuk Correctional Institution on Lantau Island. “The legal system is being morphed into a Chinese shape, such that the Hong Kong government could press charges on individuals they don’t like,” he says. “I’m lucky that I was only imprisoned for months.”
It was a 20-man cell, with no privacy. But he says he remained calm, thinking of other protesters and better times. His happiest memories, he says, are of playing football (he has even played some seven-a-side games here, and is an Arsenal fan) or working with pet rescue centres in Hong Kong. He had two rescue cats of his own, Fourteen and Pa Pa.
Law is occasionally upbeat — “we’re like a pendulum that has swung to a low point, but we’ll bounce back when the time comes” — and often down. Can you blame him? “In terms of my life experience, it’s definitely ... quite overwhelming. You’re not in Hong Kong, at the end of the day. That anxiety is omnipresent.”
It begins to rain and Law tells me he’s to head home, an undisclosed location, to write and make pasta. I ask if there’s any way to send messages to his family. He smiles. “Well, interviews. You guys report about me and they know I’m all right.”
I notice he’s carrying a black umbrella, and mention the brightly coloured brollies synonymous with the 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. “Yes, but a black umbrella symbolises another thing. Yellow speaks to optimism, but black is desperation. And that’s how things are. In 2014 we were yellow umbrellas. Now we’re black.”