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Nathan Law: Communist China’s Rise Is ‘Existential Crisis’ for Liberal Democracies

“The world had been really complacent towards the rise of China. We’ve opened up ourselves to them, including them in WTO, including them in all the international systems. But we have not developed any mechanism to hold them accountable. It’s just like we’re inviting a wolf into the house.”

In this episode, we sit down with Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Nathan Law, author of “Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back.”

“I was a protest leader. And then I was a legislator. And then I was an inmate. And for now, I’m an exiled activist.”


Jan Jekielek: Nathan Law, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Nathan Law: My pleasure.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, Nathan, big congratulations on a couple of things. First of all, you just launched your book, “Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back.” And that’s a question that a lot of people in the world are asking right now. So I’m very excited to talk to you about this.

Secondly, you had the opportunity to bring up the reality for democracy in the world and specifically for Hong Kong at the Summit for Democracy recently—bringing a voice to Hong Kong again, which doesn’t get nearly enough coverage. I think that’s very important.

Mr. Law: Thank you so much. For me, it meant a lot to me that I had the opportunity to speak at the Summit for Democracy. It is a summit that gathers 110 countries and regions, and each of the country’s leaders were paying attention to the speakers.

I was very privileged that I had the opportunity to have one of the two intersession remarks, sharing the platform with Venezuela’s President Guaidó, to talk about my struggle for Hong Kong and also the implication of Hong Kong’s erosion of freedom to the world. So this is a good opportunity for me. I hope that I delivered my message well.

Mr. Jekielek: Frankly what you spoke about, it was almost like a synopsis of the book there. We’ve had this situation where the national security law came in and a lot of people watching from outside saw this dramatic curtailing of freedom in Hong Kong. But this has actually been happening for quite a while longer.

Back in 2019 before the national security law, I had interviewed Benny Tai, the constitutional lawyer who you mentioned in the speech. But today, if I did that with anybody, they would go to jail and I would probably go to jail if I ever showed up in Hong Kong.

Mr. Law: Yes, absolutely. The deterioration of Hong Kong’s freedom has been ongoing for the past years, but we’ve come to a, like going down off the cliff in June 2020 when the national security law came in place. So for me, in the book “Freedom,” I narrated my political journey for the past seven years where I was from a student protest leader to the youngest elected  [legislator] in Hong Kong. I was disqualified, became an inmate and also an exile activist.

All these changes actually embody a set of suppression in Hong Kong and reforming the erosion of freedom. So for me, it is like the decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism is not an abstract theory, it is a painful and personal story. From these stories of mine, we could really see the side of Hong Kong and also understand more about how an authoritarian regime could erode a once-praised-as-the-freest city in Asia.

Mr. Jekielek: This has been happening for a while, this erosion of freedoms. But do you remember the first moment where you thought to yourself, “Okay. Wait a sec, something has really gone wrong here.” And it awakened you, do you remember this?

Mr. Law: Yes. I think the story I depict in “Freedom” actually goes a little bit longer. It started for me, this very first time that I was going across the border from Mainland China to Hong Kong. Back then, I remember that my mom had to do some paperwork in the border, and I was six and she stuffed two bills to me. One is Renminbi, which is the currency used in Mainland China. The other is Hong Kong dollars.

That was the time I realized that there are differences in the system of Hong Kong and system of China. And to the later stage of my life, of course, I realized that the differences are much larger than currencies. They are like different sets of ways of life—different sets of understanding the government and their relationship with the people.

Also the understanding of rule of law and how the government is held accountable by the people. These things are crucial for Hong Kong. If we’re talking about Hong Kong becoming a strange city, becoming a just ordinary Chinese city, it means that these differences are disappearing. And that’s the least thing that we want to happen in Hong Kong.

Mr. Jekielek: You know, here’s the thing, right? With something like freedom. My parents escaped from Communist Poland in the ’70s. They were looking for freedom when they came to North America. But in a country that’s been free or a place—Hong Kong, that’s been free—it’s almost hard to see the erosion of freedoms before it’s too late for many people. So the people that are noticing it early are rare. And they’re trying to say something but often aren’t listened to, right?

Mr. Law: Yes. Well, there have been a lot of people trying to protest for the past decades, but it was really until 2014, 2019 that the protest movement amassed so much popular support. Maybe these people, when they protest earlier, things could change, but history cannot repeat. And for us, what’s most important is from our experience, we can remind the rest of the world that the rise of authoritarian power is literally one of the largest crisis that we are facing.

The world had been really complacent towards the rise of China. We’ve opened up ourselves to them—including them in WTO, including them in all the international systems. But we have not developed any mechanism to hold them accountable. It’s just like we’re inviting a wolf into the house. We are hoping that they will behave themselves, even though it’s unlikely.

And when it’s really hurting the others, we simply don’t have any tools to control them. That is what’s [been] happening for the past two decades. When we talk about democratic recession, which is one of the most important notion in this Summit for Democracy, we must take the rise of authoritarianism into account and try to do something to counter it.

Mr. Jekielek: Actually this reminds me of something that you said, that I just noted. You said, “Our institutions are losing their ability to persuade us that a liberal international order will also prevail.” Wow.

Mr. Law: Yes. I think it is not only a theory. But if you go down to the street and then ask young people whether they believe in democracy—whether they will believe that democratic values will last and the world is walking towards a more democratic way—I think if you ask people in the ’80s, and if you [ask] people today, they will give completely different answers.

But now, there’s a full pessimistic prediction towards the world. People are thinking that, “Oh, the world’s not going to be better. We’ve got climate change issue. For now we’ve got a pandemic and we’ve got rise of authoritarianism. Democracy is seemingly not able to say that we can definitely change the tides and do better, and we can hold the human rights perpetrators accountable.”

So, I think it is really a wakeup call. What’s happening in Hong Kong, what’s happening in Xinjiang as the rest of China, is a wakeup call to the world that we must see it as our existential price. It is not just about helping people in Hong Kong or helping people in Xinjiang. It’s about how we can defend democracy. The system that we believe, among all the other systems at least, is the least [bad] one.

Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. I think Americans—perhaps naively, in their extreme engagement with the Chinese regime—believe they could somehow change China, it would become a democracy in their minds. I’ve heard this from so many people who no longer believe this to be true, lawmakers and so forth. But it seems like it actually went the other way. And a number of people have told me this too. What are your thoughts on that?

Mr. Law: The appeasement and engagement strategy failed, obviously, when the world was predicting that China would step into classic modernization theory by having a large economy. You got the rise of the middle class and the middle-class demanding rule of law, demanding private property, and the whole country’s moving towards the liberalization economy and political rights.

It just has not [been] realized, and China has been walking into the complete opposite direction. This wealth, they gathered the technology. They are all actually helping China to become more authoritarian, or even to a degree, utilitarian. The Chinese Communist Party today is literally more technologically sophisticated than the one in 1984. The Orwellian states and the world have not developed anything to hold them accountable.

And we’ve been seeing change of attitude in recent two years after Hong Kong’s protest, after the Xinjiang genocide issues broke out, but we are far from having any enough coordinated pushback. So in the speech, in the remark of my Summit for Democracy participation, I really stress the point that we should change some, and we should definitely be united to push back the authoritarian expansion from the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr. Jekielek: I remember in 2009, Thomas Friedman wrote this famous or infamous op-ed, saying things like he was admiring the efficiency of how China could operate to get things done. I wonder sometimes if there isn’t a little bit of that admiration when we see all the challenges of democracy, up and down, that I’m wondering if you think China may have changed us in that direction.

Look, there’s something very attractive as being able to affect change from the top, demand it and make it happen, almost instantly.

Mr. Law: First of all, when we look at Chinese news, we, of course, look at the bright things because the bad things you can’t report it. It’s kind of like a selective understanding of China because they control all the media, and all the atrocities that we’ve been hearing in recent years. I don’t think there were enough outlets in the past to make people have a clear understanding of how lives in China look like.

When Xi Jinping says that they lift all the people out of poverty, but Li Keqiang also supplements saying that there are still 600 million people living under extreme property line, it is just Xi Jinping making the poverty line much lower than it should have been so that they claim that they’ve relieved that amount of people out of poverty. These are propaganda.

So, it is definitely when foreign commentators, if they don’t really have an accurate understanding of how China’s propaganda system works, they would definitely look at all the bright side of it thinking that, “Oh, it’s a highly efficient government. It’s a government that only helps and don’t do bad things.”

Unfortunately, I think the awareness of the media in recent years has been drastically increased. They’ve been exposing a lot of atrocities in Mainland China, and don’t forget a powerful variance is causing more harm than the weak one. We are definitely seeing an extremely large authoritarian power. I think that’s something not for us to praise, but to worry. I think they’re just stepping into a completely wrong understanding about the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, let’s take the Forced Labor Prevention Act. That was something that was being debated in Congress recently. There was actually quite a bit of activity behind the scenes to lighten that or remove it. We’re talking about something that’s been repeatedly, by multiple very credible bodies, established to be a genocide.

At the very least, you could have a forced labor prevention provision, but this is somehow difficult to do in Congress on the issue, which perhaps is the most bipartisan issue in the US Congress.

Mr. Law: Yes. Well, definitely we should long be thinking about excluding forced labor products or services into our supply chain. At least we should start looking into it. I understand that it’s difficult, it touches a lot of business interests. But at least these are the things that we can do to give a clear stance, to say no to these atrocities even though it’s difficult to completely address that. But at least in principle, we should go against it. It is also another wakeup call to the business sector saying that it’s time for us to at least take human rights a bit more seriously than before.

We were seeing in a past incident, the WTA has been demonstrating a good example of how they can, even though facing a possible loss of a huge fortune, but they also stand up for their fellows and stand up for the rights that they believe.

When you compare how NBA behaved when the General Manager Mori was criticized by the Chinese government in 2019 just because he supported Hong Kong, and he was forced to retract those tweets and possibly apologize, or you could really see the difference. So I think we need more WTA and less NBA. I think using this Act as a reminder to the Congress and to the public, it plays a large role.

Mr. Jekielek: You shame me a little bit here because you are so optimistic about this. I’m aware, and of course this is very much chronicled in your book of what you’ve been through. You were elected rightfully into the LegCo, the Hong Kong legislature, and then you were removed just so that there wouldn’t be enough people to be able to block the Beijing dictates from happening.

Perhaps you can correct me here. You’ve seen some of the worst of the erosions personally, on your very skin, and you’re still being optimistic about this. My hat’s off to you, sir.

Mr. Law: Well, yes. I wouldn’t say that I’m so optimistic, but I do believe that as an activist, I’m not entitled to lose hope. I think hope is something that really supports us to go this long way. I don’t believe that the Chinese Communist Party is something that would, let’s say, face massive defeat in just a few years. It is a long road to go.

But as long as we realize and understand the reality and we still choose to continue to fight, that is where courage lies. I don’t want to fool people saying that it will be an easy road, it will be something that we can get a massive victory in a short period of time. It’s just not the case. You just have to think about, well, you have to commit a lot if you’re going with us. But if you are going with us, then you are a person with conscience. That’s how I proceed with these things.

So for me, even though I’ve personally fueled some of the most landmark cases of political suppression in Hong Kong, including going to jail, being unseated, facing all these criticism from Mainland China, propaganda and now for being wanted—possibly being on top of the wanted list under the national security law—I will face life imprisonment when I return to Hong Kong, but I will still choose to fight alongside with my comrades.

Mr. Jekielek: So where does that energy come from? Why do you choose this? This is a very important question.

Mr. Law: I think for me, I’m a person with responsibility. From seven years ago when I was in the Umbrella [movement], I already felt a strong sense of responsibility. When I saw people giving their support to me, putting their trust in me, believing in me that I have the capacity to change something.

Even though for now, the situation in Hong Kong is getting dire and dire. But still, there are lots of Hong Kong people trying to do something and hoping that people like me, political activists, that we can make a change no matter how small it is.

So for me, It’s that sense of responsibility and duty. Of course, there are also the people that I’ve been working with for the past few years that they’re now in jail. They’re literally on the front lines of facing the Chinese Communist Party’s suppression, trying to get them out. This is also one of my important vocations, and the pushing force behind all my advocacy work.

Mr. Jekielek: Well. I wish you the biggest success with this. What do you think is the biggest weak point of the Chinese regime? And sometimes it can seem so monolithic and unstoppable. Where is the weakness?

Mr. Law: Truth. They deny the truth. They sense every possible gateway of delivering truth in Mainland China. And it is probably coming to Hong Kong. Well, we’ve got a lot of movies talking about the 2019 protest that was banned, literally in Hong Kong. They can only be screened in the US, in the UK. And I have an initiative for bringing them overseas to make sure that people can watch it.

And for me, while writing the book also means that I know every [inaudible 00:20:54] of Hong Kong in a way that is outside of Beijing’s propaganda and its truth and its facts. So I think these are also important things that we are doing and definitely, this work would shame her—that thin and shallow legitimacy that the Chinese Communist Party is enjoying.

Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned something towards the end of the book when you talked about how to fight back. I’ve always loved this statement, “Be like water.” Right? This is how the protestors imagine themselves. You write, “Confronted by the most powerful, controlling, and repressive authoritarian power, protestors must be like water. We must be able to flow over any obstacle and take on any form.”

Now, this is not just advice for people fighting authoritarianism in China. It’s probably anywhere, but tell me more about this. What does this really mean?

Mr. Law: If it applies to my personal example, I was a protest leader and then I was a legislator. And then I was an inmate. And for now I’m an exile activist doing a lot of the international advocacy work in different stages of my life. It is changing so quickly, but I have to adapt.

I had to have different skill sets, meeting different people, doing different levels of advocacy work so that I could best perform. For me, “Be water” means that you change forms, you change shape in order to best counter the threats and hurdles that you’re facing.

So for me, it’s also an important motto if I, for now as an exile activist, but I still retain a mindset of doing advocacy in Hong Kong or a mindset of a legislator, then it’s impossible to do my work properly. So I think this means a lot to me and for people who want to be involved in the work of enhancing social justice, to pushing forward changes in society.

You must understand where you are. You must understand how you can best accommodate your environment and find your best way to achieve it. Understand more about it and adapt to your situation.

Mr. Jekielek: I’m going to ask you for just a few messages for different groups of people, because this is a wonderful opportunity. To Hongkongers, what is your message? Actually, you said something at the end, but in Cantonese of your speech. But, what is your message to Hongkongers?

Mr. Law: My message to Hong Kong is persist. Don’t let the Chinese Communist Party dissect you from the others. They want to atomize everyone, making us feel lonely, feeling helpless, feeling just living by yourself no matter how much they crack the civil society.

Maintain public life, be connected with others even though it’s not political, even though it’s just talking about pop stars, talking about chilling things. But make sure you are connected to the other people, and make sure you let the memory of the protest float in your head. Don’t forget it.

Mr. Jekielek: And what about Mainland Chinese? Do you have any thoughts for them because I know a few of them will be watching this as well.

Mr. Law: Well, for the main Chinese, do not be swallowed by the world of China’s propaganda, do not be swallowed by WeChat, by the world created by WeChat. If you want to know more and you want to keep safe, make sure that you have the readiness to live a double life.

You have one phone with WeChat, one phone with Twitter, you have one phone with Baidu, one phone with Google. Protect yourself and grow yourself. Get a better understanding about the world and what we are fighting for.

Mr. Jekielek: Finally, for anybody out there fighting tyranny who sees the seeds of it or is in the thick of it or has been imprisoned as one of our journalists has in Nigeria, for example, what would your message be to people fighting tyranny in general?

Mr. Law: Do not give up. I know it is a tough role. A lot of people are facing much more brutal suppression than what I’ve been through, but I believe that as long as we are together, as long as we are doing work that can wake the world, I think there are always the possibility to change. I’m here with you and I will make sure that the democratic struggle of Hong Kong is not just about Hong Kong people, but about making sure that we live in a more just and a more liberal system that we can definitely counter the rise of authoritarianism.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, I just want to mention as we finish, your book, “Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back,” I strongly recommend this book. Nathan Law, thank you so much. So good to have you on the show.

Mr. Law: Thank you so much.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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