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Hong Kong activist Nathan Law: “I did what I had to do”

The pro-democracy politician describes being exiled from his home city—and his hopes of returning

By Sarah Collins

January 27, 2022

Illustration by Maria-Ines Gul

“I always carry a sense of guilt, a survivor’s guilt, that I was able to leave Hong Kong while they couldn’t.” Exiled from his home city and forced to completely cut off contact with his family, pro-democracy activist Nathan Law is carrying the torch for friends left behind: Joshua Wong, Jimmy Lai, Benny Tai, Lester Shum and hundreds more in jail in Hong Kong.

Recent developments suggest Law’s worst fears are coming true—the region is sliding further into authoritarianism, as journalists are arrested and pro-democracy news outlets close. While another batch of pro-Beijing lawmakers was sworn into Hong Kong’s legislative council in January, Hong Kongers in London, Bristol and Manchester were congregating to express solidarity with journalists. As well as spreading the message, Law says such rallies are “also for us—for the diasporic community that we have, so that we can remind ourselves that we continue to fight for freedom, fight for our home city.”

After a turbulent five years—during which he was elected as the youngest-ever Hong Kong legislator, sentenced to time in jail and went to study for a master’s degree in the US—Law fled to London in summer 2020 as the draconian national security law was enacted.

Denounced as a criminal by the Chinese authorities, he was granted asylum in the UK in April 2021; by November he had published his first book, Freedom: How We Lose it and How We Fight Back.

Law is motivated by a strong sense of responsibility: “I was elected by people and I’m in a position of their trust.” We should remember, he says, that politicians are not “doing us a favour by being there” as “there are lots of things you have to do to gain the trust of people. I think sometimes people in power just forget that.”

Born in 1993 in Shenzhen, mainland China, Law moved to Hong Kong at the age of six. Growing up, he never wanted to be a politician and his road to activism was trodden “incrementally, step by step,” after he became involved in student politics at Lingnan University.

Law was a key figure in the 2014 pro-democracy umbrella movement, when hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against proposed reforms to the way the Hong Kong chief executive is elected.

In 2016, at the age of 23, Law, by then chair of pro-democracy party Demosisto, was elected to the Hong Kong legislative council, but was soon disqualified for making dissenting comments while taking his oath. On 17th August 2017, he was jailed for eight months for his involvement in the earlier protests. “I was lucky that I didn’t receive any torture, like physical punishment, but you could really feel like you’re being treated like a number. That they just see you as a cogwheel… they wanted to tame you in that way.” In 2019, around two million of Hong Kong’s 7.5m residents took part in mass protests against the executive’s increased authoritarianism.

Today, from London—which he describes as “a very welcoming city”—Law is still determined to shine a light on Hong Kong’s situation. But it doesn’t lessen the pain of being cut off from the people he loves. “Obviously I did what I had to,” he says of severing ties with his family, since relatives of so-called “troublemakers” risk arrest and detention. It’s been especially hard going through a second Christmas without his family: “the Chinese New Year is coming. You also miss your family during these festivals. But I also believe that when Hong Kong is free and democratic again, we can definitely meet. So, I do think that we should not be truly clouded by the darkness in front of us… We just have to leave room in our heads,” he continues, to “look forward to the light in the future. And that’s what motivates me. And that’s what keeps me going.”

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