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Nathan Law’s Lesson for Democracies

The exiled Hong Kong activist makes a case for fighting global authoritarianism in a new book.

By Melissa Chan, a reporter focused on transnational issues.

Flowers and photographs of the “Goddess of Democracy” statue lay on the ground at the Chinese University of Hong Kong after authorities removed the statue in Hong Kong on Dec. 24, 2021. ANTHONY KWAN/GETTY IMAGES

JANUARY 15, 2022

“What does it mean to be free in a world increasingly shaped by the rising authoritarian power of the People’s Republic of China?” Hong Kong activist Nathan Law asks in his new book, written from exile in the United Kingdom. He finds his answer in the essential features of a democratic society: the right to protest, the rule of law, a free press. But Law’s most significant personal act of political freedom may be the publication of the book itself.

In September 2016, at 23 years old, Law became Hong Kong’s youngest elected legislator, winning 50,818 votes before his court-ordered disqualification (on the specious charge he had failed to sincerely take his oath of office). That is 50,818 more votes than Chinese President Xi Jinping has ever won in a free and fair election, and Law’s voice—legitimate and representative—makes him a threat to the regime, along with other prominent activists in the last decade’s youth protests. Beijing has campaigned to wreck Law’s character, labeling him a fugitive after his departure to avoid imminent arrest under the draconian 2020 national security law to destroy any attempt to fight for Hong Kongers’ rights inside or out of the system.

Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back, published with co-author Evan Fowler, is not a memoir. Law has instead produced a treatise on democracy interspersed with his autobiography. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aggressively seeks to rewrite Hong Kong’s history, painting the 2019 and 2020 protests that once brought around 20 percent of residents to the streets as the work of foreign operators and terrorists. Law’s book serves as a record of what his generation stood for—and what has happened to the people of Hong Kong—no matter which substitute version of history Beijing promulgates.

Law never intended to stand on the front lines of a global ideological battle. His Instagram profile, which features him cheerfully holding his two cats, hints at the worry-free life he might have led in anonymity. Born in mainland China, Law describes his working-class family’s move to Hong Kong as an economic migration and his childhood as largely absent of politics. His transformation took place while attending university, as he and his classmates observed the tightening political climate. “No one chooses to become a dissident. To dissent is a reaction,” he writes.

Like so many other Hong Kongers, Law’s awakening came with the slow crumbling of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the agreement that handed the colony back to China in 1997 with a guarantee it would preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms. In hindsight, the idea the “one country, two systems” principle could succeed may have been magical thinking. Even if China showed some willingness to stick to it in the early years, its end was inevitable—especially as Hong Kong became less economically important to the mainland. For an absolutist like Xi, there is no such thing as two systems: He understands he faces little punitive cost for disregarding a document signed with a post-imperial middle power.

Law describes the steady creep of Chinese authoritarianism, from official attempts to roll out so-called patriotic education in schools to the kidnapping of five local booksellers who sold material critical of the Chinese government in 2015. His own story—along with those of friends who are either in prison, in exile, or silent—shows how rapidly Hong Kong has descended in a few short years. Civil society organizations have disbanded. Journalists have lost their jobs, from the staff of the now-defunct pro-democratic Apple Daily to those who left after the takeover of public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong by Beijing loyalists. Social media accounts have gone quiet as Hong Kongers erase evidence of their participation in or sympathy for the protests.

What troubles Law most is how autocrats turn the features of liberal societies toward oppression—not just in Hong Kong but in struggling democracies from Brazil to Hungary. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has worked to undermine his country’s institutions, from the courts to election authorities, all in the name of Brazil’s people. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has done the same at home while effectively wielding his country’s European Union membership to veto action against China.

But if the autocrats have started working together, so too must the dissidents. Law calls for more cross-border collaboration, such as Southeast Asia’s Milk Tea Alliance activist network. The alliance grew out of an online meme but quickly became a serious term of solidarity and a hashtag used to disseminate critical information. Beginning in 2020, it gathered momentum during the military crackdown on anti-coup protesters in Myanmar.

Law argues the stakes of defending democracy are as existential as the fight against climate change. Authoritarianism is “polluting the world’s politics,” he writes. Just as young people have energized the environmental movement, Law hopes his generation is ready for the fight against tyranny. In Hong Kong and elsewhere, those in power have cast youth activists as naive and misguided. Beijing has pushed this type of propaganda for decades, and in the absence of competing narratives, many people in China have bought the CCP’s story.

But Law says young people make ideal activists. “We don’t yet have many of the responsibilities of later life, and we are also less deeply embedded in existing political power structures,” he writes. “Our relative innocence to the way things are, and to the realities of the world, fosters a refreshing idealism and the imagination to do things differently. We see this in young people everywhere.” He reminds readers that every generation must fight for and earn its freedom and democracy.

Law makes a case for how Beijing’s authoritarianism and economic leverage play out in some democracies. China has slapped import bans on various Australian goods following its call for an investigation into COVID-19’s origins. Lithuania, increasingly friendly with Taiwan, faces the prospect that its fellow European Union member states will be blocked from the Chinese market if it continues business operations in the country. And, as Law experiences when he encounters hecklers abroad, there are those who “choose simply not to believe the overwhelming evidence of what is reported in the free press and to align themselves with the CCP narrative.”

This authoritarian expansion into democratic arenas may prove to be the biggest challenge. Beijing used a bludgeon to bring Hong Kong into submission, but it cannot employ the same tactics abroad, so-called wolf warrior diplomacy notwithstanding. Instead, China has flexed its economic might to achieve its goals and demanded fealty from its citizens living overseas. It has also spurred disinformation campaigns, twisting the language of liberalism into a weapon. Its propaganda news outlets, from China Daily to China Global Television Network, spread lies in the name of freedom of expression.

Law’s solution—more activism and civic engagement—is not new, and he acknowledges these options may feel futile against growing authoritarianism. But he continues the fight. Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back is a compelling read and an earnest reminder that those who live in democracies must remain active citizens to safeguard their own freedoms. Law has experienced the heartache of witnessing freedom disappear from his homeland and has paid the price of permanent exile, committing to full-time political activism. Perhaps in the future, he will write a memoir; his story is not yet finished.


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