In the seventh century BC, Thrasybulus, the brutal tyrant of Miletus was asked how he managed to maintain his throne. He responded by taking the man on a walk through a field of wheat, stopping to scythe down the tallest and best plants. The message conveyed was that the tyrant pre-empted challenges to power by removing those outstanding individuals powerful or brave enough to threaten him. This ancient parable told in the oldest work of history is just as relevant to despots today as in antiquity.
The Chinese Communist Party’s illegal effort to clamp down on Hong Kong’s democracy to absorb the region into the mainland utilises these same tactics. The sweeping national security law has been used to round up the mouthpieces of discontent and silence them with arbitrary prison sentences. Hong Kong’s hitherto lively press has been gagged and future protests have been further halted by Covid lockdowns. Nathan Law has been a perennial thorn in the side of the CCP. Elected as Hong Kong’s youngest-ever lawmaker and founder of Demoistio, he consistently campaigned for Hong Kong’s right to self-determination. Now in exile in London, Law stands tall and resolute against CCP efforts to act as Thrasybulus did. A beacon of hope and action, his every word is an act of defiance to Xi Jinping’s tyranny.
Asked how he balances a fear of personal safety with his mission of spreading the truth and advocating for freedom as a political activist, he replies that we need to understand just how far the reach of the CCP is. “We’ve seen incidents and we’ve heard that some activists are being persecuted or extraditions were made. So, these are definitely worrying signs for us. But I think the only reason why they use these intimidation tactics is to stop you from what you’re doing. You’re creating a lot of momentum for the world to take the human rights crimes seriously and try to hold them accountable. So for me, I’ll still continue to do it”. Even in London, Law is careful to keep his location undisclosed for fear of Chinese reprisals, but in spite of such danger he boldly exclaims that “I must continue, and I must not be stopped by the intimidation”.
For Law, students make ideal activists and universities are essential for incubating idealism. “When you are a student, you don’t have many external interests, you are not working for a salary. It makes the advocacy that you have associated with innocence and idealism… when you are earning a salary people expect you to be different from a student’s perspective”. University was certainly influential to Law’s own career. He was a leader in his student union which imbued him with experience of “tedious stuff, administrative stuff and experience of dealing with a big institution like the university”.
As a student leader he “encouraged people to join groups and unions like that in order to have a voice and, get to know about these big institutions and how to deal with them”, namely participate in protests like the 2013 Dock Strike and the Umbrella Revolution. This call to transmute ideals into deeds is something that has continued undimmed throughout his life.
However, he notes that the pivotal formative experience of activists at university is being eroded in our age: “Free speech and academic freedoms are the cornerstones of our values of university. We’ve seen a lot of incidents where Hong Kong students are unable to express their opinion freely because there is some pressure from the Chinese side. We’ve seen the extraterritorial effect of the National Security Law, which makes the speech of, for example, a student in the UK where they talk about China criticizing their human rights violation potentially subject to criminal proceeding in Hong Kong. So, these things indeed intrude our free speech and academic freedom”.
For Law, universities must “provide more mechanisms to protect them and to make sure that this intimidation, especially from China, does not get into the campus”. He highlights our individual agency as students on campus to create positive change, “organizers can organize activities. Journalists can report more. Ordinary citizens could join more and share more. I think we are in a relatively safe environment to express and to learn. I think we should encapsulate and utilize that”.
A key idea for Law is that authoritarianism anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere. Whether we confront oppression in Russia, North Korea or Hong Kong, we are fighting for universal human dignity. “For me, the reason why we’ve experienced global democracy decline for the past decade, is we’re just too complacent to the rise of authoritarian countries like China”.
It is this mindset that makes awareness and action so essential to his blueprint of defending global freedoms. He is glad to see that “awareness [of Chinese repression] has been growing and we can also see that translate into China policy. We’ve seen a drastic change in terms of say the British policy in the past one and a half years. I think is a really good trend”. The reversal from Osborne and Cameron’s ‘golden age’ of Sino-British relations to the BNO visa scheme and bipartisan condemnation of the CCP’s human rights violations in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang has certainly been dramatic.
On the immediate future of Hong Kong, he recognises that it “is definitely dire. I don’t think we will see major changes in a few years. But for me, I think as an activist, we’re not entitled to lose hope. My duty is to empower and enlighten people to encourage them to fight for what they believe and to precipitate positive social change. So, I think in that sense we just have to keep everybody moving, even though we’re in such a dark time.
“It’s like we are walking in a dark tunnel, even though we were unable to see the glimpse of light at the end of that for now, but we just have to believe that when we keep walking we will eventually see that light. I think that’s the mentality that a lot of our activists have. Plus, there are actually a lot of Hong Kong people who are doing things in a very difficult political situation, and those are also embodying hopes to other people”.
Law’s inspiriting rallying cry of a book Freedom: How we lose it and how we fight back was published in November 2021 to popular acclaim. I hope that I speak for Durham’s entire student body in commending Law for his bravery and standing with Hong Kong against political repression.
Image: Palatinate TV