top of page

Books: Hong Kong's cautionary tale for freedom

Activist Nathan Law details firsthand accounts of the city's democracy movemen

Nobel Peace Prize nominee Nathan Law's new book "Freedom: How We Lost It and How We Fight Back," provides a synopsis of Hong Kong's fight for democracy. © Reuters

MICHELLE CHAN, Contributing writer

January 23, 2022

NEW YORK -- Still a young man, Hong Kong democracy activist Nathan Law has lived a tumultuous life. The former student leader rose to political prominence in the 2014 Umbrella Movement and became the city's youngest-ever elected lawmaker at age 23, only to be removed from the legislature and imprisoned for his role in the peaceful protest months later.

During the roaring street protests in 2019, Law, then a graduate student at Yale University, juggled between studying and advocating for Hong Kong's democracy movement overseas. Yet, a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing the following year forced him -- and many other Hong Kong opposition politicians -- into exile.

In his new book "Freedom: How We Lost It and How We Fight Back," the Nobel Peace Prize nominee wrote from London that it was never his intention to be an activist, nor the "troublemaker" Beijing portrays him to be. Quoting former Czech president Vaclav Havel, Law said he did not choose to become a dissident. Instead, he was simply transformed into one by following what he felt he ought to do.

The 221-page book is a blend of a heartfelt journal, a synopsis of Hong Kong's fight for democracy, and perhaps most importantly, a cautionary tale to the world about the speed with which freedoms can be taken away by an autocratic regime. "It is easy to forget how hard-fought and how fragile our freedoms really are," he wrote. "It is not a given, and each generation must fight to protect it."

Born into a working-class family in the Southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, Law moved to Hong Kong at the age of six, where he enjoyed a modest upbringing. Politics never crossed his mind until high school, when he first attended a June 4 candlelight vigil commemorating the unarmed students massacred by the People's Liberation Army during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Nathan Law taking the oath of office in the Hong Kong Legislative Council on October 12, 2016. (File photo by AP)

For three decades, Hong Kong had been the only place on Chinese soil where large-scale memorials to Tiananmen protests could be held. The event used to draw hundreds of thousands of attendees each year and was the political awakening for many youths, including Law. "That day I learned what it truly meant to feel solidarity, and to be a Hongkonger with a free spirit," Law recalls.

Today, the group that organized the annual vigil has disbanded and many of its members have been sentenced to jail. Along with the commemoration, certain books, films and journalistic articles about the city's revolt have been taken out of circulation and banned by authorities as they push ahead with their own narratives of the past.

While Law says he is uncertain how Hong Kong can pass down this piece of history to future generations, he emphasizes the importance of salvaging such memories. "We lose our freedoms because we have forgotten what it was to be free," he wrote.

"When governments control access to information and are able to define the narrative and dictate what we know, we lose more than our freedoms. We lose the ability to see the world for what it is. We lose our humanity," Law writes.

His fondness for unitedness and common ideals -- as inspired by his June 4 vigil experience -- eventually led Law to a leadership role in the student union and an unexpected life in the years to come.

Revealing part of the toll this has taken on his personal life, Law says going down this path has alienated him from his old friends, who fear any connection with the vocal activist would be dangerous. "We self-censor not only what we dare do or say, but even those with whom we choose to associate," he writes.

Like many other countries mired in transformative political debates, such as Brexit in the U.K. or the partisan divide roiling the U.S., personal relationships in Hong Kong are often founder over politics. Despite that, Law remains adamant in his belief that open-mindedness and engaging in conversations actively are the essence of freedom.

"Hatred of an imaginary other, not love of the person, is what binds unfree societies," he writes at one point. "To defend what is important to us, and to stand firm for the values we believe in, does not and should not rely on hatred of the opposition."

To safeguard freedoms, Law argues, we should treat activism as a way of life. Casting ballots in elections, taking part in civil society organizations, and staying vigilant when laws are being abused, are rudimentary to keeping democracy afloat. "We lose our freedoms when we no longer truly believe in them, when being free no longer matters to us," he says.

Despite living more than 5,000 miles from Beijing, Law says he still lives "under the shadow of constant threats and intimidation," with Chinese officials often calling him out as a "national enemy" and "traitor," reminding readers of China's record of kidnapping dissidents living outside its borders.

Law's struggle epitomizes the extensive reach of an authoritarian regime. In recent years, Chinese state-owned media have stepped up efforts to shape public narratives, both at home and abroad. For instance, the protests in Hong Kong have been referred to as "a color revolution incited and sponsored by foreign agents."

Nathan Law addressing the Hong Kong media during a press conference on June 19, 2020. © Getty Images

Nor, notes Law, is the international business community, eager to profit off emerging China's booming economy, out of reach either. Countries, multinational corporations, even foreign celebrities, now have to walk a fine line not to offend Beijing and its increasingly aggressive patriots -- even in the most remotest way -- or they risk attracting state-backed boycotts.

Such economic coercion, as Law puts it, is "in part a product of our complacency" as the world continues to accept this behavior and an unbalanced relationship with China.

In face of rising threats to democracy across the globe, Law's book serves as a forewarning of how a once-free, open and vibrant society can be undermined by authoritarianism.

Since the author sought asylum in the U.K. a year and a half ago, Hong Kong's prospect for freedom has only become bleaker. Its semi-democratic electoral system has been neutered, civil society groups have been decimated, schools and media have come under growing oversight, and the city's leading pro-democracy figures are either in exile or in jail.

"There will inevitably be defeats, and times when the situation may seem hopeless," Law wrote as he dedicated the book to fellow Hong Kongers and his friends who have been imprisoned in their pursuit of democracy, even though it cannot hit the shelves in the city. "But we must persevere. Only with commitment and determination is change possible."

bottom of page