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Index on Censorship is deeply alarmed by the reports that the Hong Kong Police Force have issued arrest warrants for eight pro-democracy activists living in exile in the UK, USA and Australia. According to the police force, all those targeted “are alleged to have continued to commit offences under the Hong Kong National Security Law that seriously endanger national security, including ‘incitement to secession’, ‘subversion’, ‘incitement to subversion’ and ‘collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security’.” Index has long condemned the National Security Law as it has fundamentally criminalised dissent and “paralysed pro-independence and pro-democracy advocates in the city.”
Index further condemns the reward offered by the Hong Kong authorities of HK$1 million (£100,581) for information leading to their capture. By offering financial incentives to members of the public to report on these pro-democracy activists, the authorities are trying to turn society against itself to isolate those who have spoken out against China’s attack on human rights. This is especially damaging for those living in exile. Through the Banned By Beijing project, Index has documented how Chinese authorities – both in Hong Kong and mainland China – have threatened those who have fled to Europe, targeting their ability to work, express themselves, seek education, or continue advocating for human rights back home in China.
The extraterritorial reach of the National Security Law explicitly targets those who have fled due to their work defending democracy. The US Government highlighted this specific issue in their statement responding to the warrants, stating that “the extraterritorial application of the Beijing-imposed National Security Law is a dangerous precedent that threatens the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people all over the world.” All states must ensure they can respond robustly to all threats of transnational repression. This was highlighted in an exhibition launched by Index last week in London to mark the third anniversary of the enactment of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which featured Badiucao, a Chinese-Australian artist and human rights defender; Lumli Lumlong, a husband and wife painting duo; and leading Uyghur campaigner, Rahima Mahmut.
All countries must stand firm to their commitment to ensure that all those targeted by these warrants and the National Security Law are protected from transnational threats wherever they are.
Nathan Law has been imprisoned, disqualified from political office and forced to seek political asylum in the UK – all for fighting for democratic rights in Hong Kong, his home city. But, in spite of it all, he remains optimistic.
“As an activist I’m not entitled to lose hope,” he tells Index on Censorship. “I still believe that maybe in a decade’s time I can set foot in Hong Kong, when it’s democratic and free.”
Law, 28, fled to London in the summer of 2020 after the passing of the National Security Law, a draconian piece of legislation that criminalises even a whisper of criticism against Beijing’s rule.
Given the chance, what would he tell Communist Party leaders in Beijing?
“I would say, ‘There is no totalitarian regime that can remain forever. All of them will collapse’, and I’d say, ‘That is your fate if you continue to do what you are doing’.”
Law’s face and name are synonymous with the struggles in Hong Kong. Alongside Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Agnes Chow, he has helped drive the recent protest movement.
The son of a construction worker and a cleaner, he first became interested in democratic values at secondary school when the late writer and human rights defender Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Liu was serving his fourth prison sentence in China and was unable to accept the prize in person. An image of an empty chair soon went viral, a stark reminder of how bad human rights were in China.
“I grew up in a family that did not talk about politics, did not talk about social affairs,” Law says. Although he studied in a pro-Beijing school, he was “not heavily brainwashed to believe in the Communist Party”. He adds: “I was apolitical. I was not involved.” But when Liu won the prize, the principal of his school publicly denounced the writer in morning assembly.
“It triggered my curiosity because I thought people getting the Nobel Prize are the ones who are good in their field. So how come such a person – a Chinese [person] – would be criticised in that fashion? It really triggered my curiosity and got me to look into the work that he had been doing. He opened up a gate for me to understand all these concepts.”
That gate first led Law to the Tiananmen Square vigil, held in Hong Kong every year since 1989, and then to him leading the 2014 Umbrella Movement (which later landed him in prison on charges of “unlawful assembly”).
After this, Law became the youngest legislator in Hong Kong’s history, a position from which he was quickly disqualified when he modified his oath of allegiance to China during the swearing-in ceremony in October 2016.
In the same year, he founded Demosistō, a pro-democracy political party, with Agnes Chow and Wong.
But time was up when the National Security Law was passed. Demosistō was disbanded, Law was forced out of Hong Kong and Chow and Wong were jailed, alongside scores of others connected to the democracy movement.
Today, dissent is in a straitjacket in Hong Kong. And yet not all have given up fighting. In Law’s recently published book – Freedom: How We Lose It And How We Fight Back – he writes: “Even during this most bitter of times the spirit of ordinary Hong Kong people continues to shine, even if it must do so in the shadows.”
Law lists the people who refuse to have their prison sentences lessened by agreeing to the charges against them and instead “defend themselves in order to narrate their story at the risk of heavy sentencing”. He lists those who attend court hearings to show support to the defendants, those who write letters to the imprisoned and those who advocate for any policy that might remotely challenge the government.
“The hope lies in these people. Even though we are in the darkest time and change is seemingly impossible, people are still doing things because they feel that it is the right thing to do,” he says.
Law might have an admirable sense of hope, but his is not an easy life. He had to publicly sever ties with his family when he moved to the UK and has been unable to talk to Agnes Chow and Wong, too. He misses the people and he misses the place.
“I always dream about Hong Kong,” he says. “You’re familiar with everything. You don’t have to think. Like when you step into the MTR [the subway]. It’s in your muscles, in your memory. You understand everything. You understand all the slang. The background noise with people’s hectic walk, the hectic talk of Cantonese and bus horns, those noises from the stores and from restaurants. It’s just unique.”
Law has been granted asylum in the UK – a move that angered Beijing, which declared him a criminal suspect. Even though he is thousands of miles from Hong Kong, he still has to look over his shoulder. He takes extra precautions: he never mentions where he lives and he takes detours when he leaves and returns home – measures that have come to define the life of China’s dissidents. He simply doesn’t feel safe “because of how extensive China’s reach can be”.
“We’ve got cases like Navalny; the Russian dissident forced to land in Belarus; we’ve also got a lot of cases of Uyghur activists around the world being arrested or extradited back to China. There are a lot of things that can happen to dissidents. It is not a secret that I am almost at the top of the list of national enemies that China portrays, so things like this could happen,” he says.
“On the other hand, I don’t want any of these fears to hinder my activities and my activism. So I will try to be vigilant to protect myself, but I will also try 100% to promulgate the agenda of the Hong Kong democratic movement.”
One of the ways that he wants to do this is through publishing his book. A blend of personal experience and broader context, Law wants it to appeal to as many people as possible and for these people to “act after reading it”.
“I’m an author, of course, but at the end of the day my essential identity is an activist. By definition, an activist is someone who tries to empower people to act in order to precipitate social changes. I intend to appeal to people to be more aware of their own democratic states,” he says.
As for what we can do to help Hong Kong, Law puts it simply: “Get involved. Pay more attention to Hong Kong and to China. Start to look into campaigns that could help, like boycotting the Olympics, supporting political prisoners or even reading news – just supporting the news agencies who produce these fantastic stories for Hong Kong and for China.
“After that, if you really want to be a campaigner that supports Hong Kong then get organised. Find your local grassroots organisation and be a volunteer and try to explain that to your friends and your neighbours.”
It might be the darkest chapter in Hong Kong’s story, but – to channel Law’s optimism – let’s hope it’s not the last.
Young activist Nathan Law’s election to the Legislative Council in 2016 shattered the myth that the people of Hong Kong did not desire freedom and democracy, he says in an extract from his new book
Extracted from Freedom: How We Lose it and How We Fight Back, by Nathan Law, published by Transworld in November 2021
This interview and the extract appeared in the winter issue of Index on Censorship. Click here for more information on this issue