INTERVIEW: Future Hangs in the Balance for HK Student Leader Nathan Law

INTERVIEW: Future Hangs in the Balance for HK Student Leader Nathan Law
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Tense times: One of Hong Kong’s most iconic anti-Beijing student leaders is at a crossroads.     

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Nathan Law (羅冠聰) made headlines around the world last week when a Hong Kong court found him guilty for his role in a 2014 protest in the lead-up to the Umbrella Movement.

Law, a former Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) leader, is the chairperson of newly formed political party Demosistō and yesterday had his candidacy confirmed to contest Hong Kong Island in the critical September Legislative Council elections.

In an interview at the party’s headquarters in an industrial building in Hong Kong, Law discusses the uncertainties that lie ahead: from his thoughts on possible jail time and plans to battle the authorities in court, to the fracturing among the pro-democracy parties, the desperation behind the rising independence movement, and why the world is watching for Beijing’s next move.

The News Lens International (TNLI): To start with the court’s verdict last week, do you have any idea what the sentence might be?

Nathan Law: The verdict found me guilty of inciting an unauthorized assembly – Sept. 26, 2014, in Civic Square. The penalty will come out on Aug. 15. During this time I have to meet the probation officers to obtain a report, which will suggest [to the judge] what penalty I should be given, for example, social service or imprisonment.

TNLI: Obviously your case was unique, but is there any precedent or do you have any expectations?

N.L: I have been consulting the legal advisors but they still don’t have a clear mind about what the sentence will be because there has not been a similar case to refer to. They think the range will be social service to several months of imprisonment.

TNLI: How do you feel about that?

N.L: Although the lawyer says it is "not likely" to be several months, but it is possible. If that is the result, I will definitely appeal it.

TNLI: At this stage, are you trying not to think about it too much?

N.L: Yes. It has been two years since Civic Square, I have thought about the possible consequences of the court case more than 100 times in my mind. I am mentally well-prepared for it. It is not making me really nervous or worried.

TNLI: On the day the decision came out you said something to the extent of, if you had the chance you would do it again. Why is that?

N.L: The report that the probation officers are working on is to see whether or not I feel guilty for what I have done, and to see if there is still a chance I would commit this kind of civil disobedience – to suggest what penalty I should be given.

I am still saying I don’t regret what I have done. I still think in that circumstance, civil disobedience is the only choice to protest and to express your opinion, because we had exhausted everything in the legal framework and gained no response and made no progress.

The truth is, Hong Kong people had been granted their political rights in 2007. It is written plainly, in the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration. But for the past 10 years, our political rights have been deprived – from electing our chief executive and our legislative councilors. So we have a very legitimate ground to protest. That is the reason I don’t think I have done anything wrong, in terms of expressing our ideas in Civic Square.

TNLI: Do you think what has happened since that day also justified the action – the Umbrella Movement, and the various political parties that have started since then?

N.L: The Umbrella Movement was a very glorious moment for Hong Kong. I truly believe that the action of entering Civic Square opened up the Umbrella Movement. That was the last resort, back in 2014, to express our anger to the White Paper, the 31 August framework and the political repression from the [Chinese] Communist Party.

TNLI: You say that you saw civil disobedience as the only option in that circumstance, but we are now sitting in the new headquarters of a new political party. So can you talk to why you are now trying to get directly involved in politics?

N.L: I still believe that civil disobedience can change society. The reason why I decided to participate in the election is if you want to sustain your political influence joining the [Legislative] Council is one of the optimum options. As you know, the social movement has its ups and downs; your own influence is not sustainable sometimes. If you are pushing a political movement for years, you have to [extend] your influence and political force. That is why we decided to form our party, engage in the elections, and push forward our new direction of the democratic movement, which is self-determination, talking about the future post-2047 [the date Hong Kong's current constitutional arrangements run to].

TNLI: To go back to the sentencing: you plan to run in September, but what kind of impact will these legal matters have on that plan?

N.L: Firstly, the legal procedures are quite clumsy and complicated, so I have to spend time to talk with the officers and legal consultants. That occupies my time.

Second, in terms of the penalty, prison is one of the options. If that [imprisonment sentence] was more than three weeks, [and] if I did not appeal, it is likely that I will lose my qualification as an election candidate. If that was the case, I must appeal, and that would also occupy my time.

After the appeal, if I still have to face imprisonment for more than three weeks and if I was elected, then my position as a legislator would be canceled, and for the next five years I could not participate in any elections. That may be the worst circumstance.

TNLI: As a party, what are you planning to do in that situation? Would someone else replace you in the Sept. election if that was going to be the case?

N.L: It is impossible to have such a "plan b." The 29th [of July] is the end of the application period. So it is very difficult for us to make another arrangement for this year’s election.

TNLI: With the September elections, how is Demosistō’s campaigning going at this stage?

N.L: It is quite good at this stage. We are fresh faces, in terms of elections, and we don’t have really concrete organizations in the communities of Hong Kong Island; so our starting point is tougher than the traditional pan-democrats.

For us, we can see and feel that our support rate is increasing, especially after the verdict [last week]. More and more people are recognizing us as the icons of the Umbrella Movement and inheriting the spirit of that movement. That is really important for people to recognize that.

TNLI: For people outside of Hong Kong, can you talk about the electorate that you are competing in?

N.L: In Hong Kong Island [at the last election] the establishment camps had more seats than the pan-democrats, even though the pan-democrats actually had more votes.

In Hong Kong Island we need new faces and energy to broaden the people’s choices. In the history of Hong Kong Island, there have been no young candidates that could win. We need that part of the vote.

We see this year’s election as a combat of different political ideas. After the Umbrella Movement, it is really hard to convince people to follow the path provided by the Communist Party; it has been proven our democratic movement is not working following this way.

We need our own agenda, and we need a new agenda for our political movement. That is what everyone is fighting for in these elections.

The traditional pan-democrats, they still uphold relaunching the political consultation; the more radical [parties] uphold building the Hong Kong nation and independence.

TNLI: And Demosistō?

N.L: We [Demosistō] provide a vision of self-determination with around 30 years of planning. That is the way we believe Hong Kong should move forward. We need a long term vision, with clear stages for Hong Kong people to accumulate their power and have a clear target.

For the past 20 years of Hong Kong’s political movement we have been in a cycle; every five years, fighting for general universal suffrage in the next chief executive election. That is the way the democratic movement of Hong Kong has been going.

We think to break through the cycle, and having a long-term plan is very important to keep building pressure and momentum, instead of fading out every five years.

We are planning to have an online referendum during next year’s chief executive election, to confirm the rights of Hong Kong people to self-determination. That is the first stage, and other stages will follow, like international lobbying and drafting Hong Kong’s charter.

TNLI: Have you noticed an increase in international media coverage and interest?

N.L: After the Umbrella Movement there has been a huge focus from the international media on Hong Kong’s political situation. The whole world is watching Hong Kong, because it reflects the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party towards human rights and towards our freedom. It is an indicator of how brutal or unreasonable the Communist Party is.

TNLI: Do you think that gives you an advantage in terms of bringing about change and influencing the CCP?

N.L: Yes, definitely, because the Communist Party is afraid of media coverage. That is why they control the information inside their country. If the people outside [China] can receive more information about Hong Kong and what we are fighting for, then it may facilitate changes in Mainland China. I believe the influence it has is positive.

TNLI: From the outside, I would say that looking at all the different pro-democracy parties, while you are not all exactly aligned, you are on the same page. Going into the elections, if you have four or five of these parties splitting the vote, won’t this make it easier for the pro-Beijing parties?

N.L: The fragmentation of Hong Kong’s political spectrum is the result of [Hong Kong Chief Executive] CY Leung's [梁振英] tactics; provoke the ideas of independence in order to drag the supporters across a more diverse spectrum.

It is also the side-effect of the Umbrella Movement. As I mentioned, the old ways of fighting for democracy are not working. People need an answer. That is what all the parties are doing. They are trying to provide an answer. Everyone is fighting for their own notions and their own theories.

TNLI: Would it not make some sense for people like you, in the younger generation, to join with the existing pan-democratic parties and change their positions from within?

N.L: For me, at HKFS we actually started to cooperate with them two years ago. We could see we are different in terms of how we feel we should resist in Hong Kong, and our relationship with the Communist Party. We tend to be tougher and more resistant of the influence of the Communist Party.

It is really difficult to change their mindset from the inside, because they still have the same assumption of China: that someday there will be an "open" China, in terms of human rights and freedoms, without the help of a revolution. They still believe that the leader of the Communist Party will wake up one day and say "we should be more open."

So we have a fundamental difference in the assumption of the nature of the Communist Party. It is very difficult to change, especially when a party has a long history.

TNLI: You are probably sick of being asked about the ‘localist’ groups in Hong Kong. But they are gaining increasing amounts of attention and a recent survey showed growing support for Hong Kong independence, and that ties in with some of the localist sentiment. You mentioned the impact of CY Leung, what else do you think is driving that support?

N.L: The notion of independence is coming from desperation towards the reality. We can see that for years, under CY Leung’s rule and ever since the handover [from the United Kingdom], Hong Kong’s situation in terms of protection of freedoms, human rights and the living environment have been declining. Basically, a lot of people see no hope for their future. They see no hope of buying a property and having a comfortable living environment. They see no hope for their political rights, because the Communist Party will never grant democracy.

There is a lot desperate sentiment coming from the current situation. So that is why the notion of independence is growing.

TNLI: Do you think it also has appeal because it is simple? Whereas self-determination takes some explaining?

N.L: Yes, that is also the case. I think it is appealing. It is really simple.

TNLI: You and fellow party leader Joshua [Wong] (黃之鋒) are both very well-known, and perhaps even more so after the verdict last week. How much do you think this fame helps Demosistō in building support?

Being the victim of the Communist Party is quite "normal" – people will think you are really doing what you believe in. It helps for people to see you are really resisting and fighting for Hong Kong. That is really important for people to decide whether to vote for you or not.

TNLI: Demosistō is very active on social-media; can you talk about what you do in that space?

N.L: We have put a lot of effort into building up our image and running the Facebook account and things like this. Although in the beginning, we faced some difficulties and some criticism on the Internet, after some adjustment, the feedback is now quite positive. I believe it really helps us to really spread our message and our ideas.

TNLI: The Hong Kong government came out a few weeks ago saying candidates must sign a declaration that they will uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. What was your reaction to that?

N.L: I haven’t signed it. I believe it is clearly censorship of candidates’ political ideas. It is violating the law that grants freedom of expression and freedom of our political stance.

TNLI: By not signing it, do you risk not being able to stand in the election?

N.L: If there are enough candidates refusing to sign it, the government will dare not cancel all of our candidacies. A lot of pan-democrats haven’t signed it, but the government is confirming their candidacies. That really shows that, sometimes, if we are united, we can defend ourselves and achieve something.

TNLI: What other ways is the government influencing the September election?

N.L: I don’t know, maybe, the recent court case was planned. I don’t know if it was done intentionally or not, putting it that close to the time of the election.

TNLI: Is there anything you would like to mention at this stage?

N.L: I truly believe that after the Umbrella Movement we have to inherit that spirit. Such a huge event happened. We cannot forget about it. It is really important to continue to determine our future and keep fighting with dignity, we cannot resist without any values.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole

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