On the rainy Tuesday morning after Hong Kong’s legislative elections, Nathan Law’s office looked something like a slumber party in a fallout shelter. Two members of his political party,, were curled up asleep on battered futons, and crossing the room meant tripping through a minefield of campaign detritus: bullhorns, empty Pocari Sweat bottles, extension cords, a ladder propped against a mountain of cardboard boxes. One campaign member had hung his laundry from the metal grid of the drop tile ceiling and forgotten it there.
“We let things get messy during the election,” Law grins.
And if he is fazed by the result of that election — in which he, at 23, became the youngest lawmaker in Hong Kong’s history — he’s adept by now at affecting grace under pressure. He’s had two years to acclimatize to the political spotlight, ever since he emerged as a leader of the massive pro-democracy demonstrations, collectively known as Occupy Central or the Umbrella Revolution, that floored Hong Kong for three months in the fall of 2014. He’s grown up since then — his wardrobe is chicer, his jawline a little more pronounced — while Hong Kong has grown more anxious, neutered in the face of what it sees as Beijing’s encroachment on the semiautonomous territory.
“People have put their trust in me, and now I have to perform,” he says. “We hope that we can bring the issue of Hong Kong’s future to the parliamentary table. That’s completely different to protesting.
”Law is one of a handful of young pro-democracy activists who earned seats in Sunday’s elections — an unprecedented feat in this town of career politicians, and indicative of a widespread urge for political change that has been mounting since the 2014 protests. Then, demonstrators demanded the right to directly elect Hong Kong’s leader, the chief executive, who is chosen by a council seen as Beijing’s proxy — one of several constitutional mechanisms intended to ensure that the central government has the final word when it comes to managing the territory, which has otherwise nominally held a “high degree of autonomy” since the British returned it to China in 1997.
The call for reform went unanswered, and the protest leaders were dismissed by critics as hapless, unschooled fringe ideologues who ultimately lacked real political power. Sunday’s elections have invalidated this. Law earned more than 50,000 votes, the second highest of any candidate in his constituency Hong Kong Island, which is allotted six seats in the legislature.
“It shows that Hong Kong people want changes in the democratic movement,” Law says of his victory. “Hong Kong’s democratic movement has been stuck in a place where it can’t escape from the road map drawn by the Communist Party.”
His zeal for democratizing Hong Kong is the passion of a convert. He was born in Shenzhen, the mainland metropolis just north of Hong Kong’s border, to what he calls a “blue collar” family; they moved to Hong Kong in 1999, when he was 6. His parents enrolled him in schools run by Beijing sympathizers. Law recalls an October morning in 2010 when his principal stood up at a morning assembly to denounce Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” (Liu currently sits in prison for “subverting state power,” slated for release in 2020.) There were lessons in Chinese politics — which were presented as “uncorrupt and democratic,” even though Law saw nothing on school field trips to the mainland that could compare with Hong Kong’s rule of law.
An independent judiciary is something Hong Kong’s democracy supporters regularly point to (with alternating pride and worry) as a vital distinguishing factor between the semiautonomous territory and the rest of China. On paper, Hong Kong’s freedoms are preserved by the constitutional dynamic known as “one country, two systems,” designed to bulwark the city’s freewheeling ways even as it acknowledged China’s sovereignty. The fear now is that it is not enough. The demonstrations in 2014 were a call for election reforms, but more essentially they channeled an existential angst over what many saw as China’s incursion into the territory’s way of life. (The chief executive, whose method of appointment protesters were seeking to alter, is widely seen as Beijing’s lieutenant.)
Law was a figurehead of the protests, in large part because he was one of three student activists arrested for storming a public square near the government headquarters on Sept. 26, 2014, which proved to be a watershed night for unrest. The two others were Alex Chow and then 17-year-old Joshua Wong, the gawky, bespectacled activist who emerged as a poster boy for Hong Kong’s democratic movement. Today, Wong — at 19, still too young to run for public office — is the secretary general of , the political party Law heads, which emerged from the ashes of the Occupy movement. Wong is a foil of sorts to Law: he is vociferous, occasionally to the point of theater; Law is more measured, with the pensive, scholastic look of a graduate student. (Never mind that he hasn’t yet graduated from college. Schoolwork took a backseat to politics for awhile.) Read more…
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