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13 November 2020updated 07 Sep 2021 11:31am

Nathan Law: “Erosion of Hong Kong’s freedom has reached a new height”

The pro-democracy activist on Beijing’s latest crackdown and how foreign powers should respond.  

By India Bourke

When the exiled Hong Kong activist Nathan Law woke up in locked-down London on Wednesday morning (11 November) he was met with yet more disturbing news from his former home: four pro-democracy MPs had been banned from the territory’s parliament after new rules imposed by China deemed their behaviour “unpatriotic”. By the following day, the rest of the legislators in the opposition camp felt they had no choice but to resign en masse. “The erosion of Hong Kong’s freedom has reached a new height,” said Law of the crackdown.

The news quickly sparked condemnation in the West, with the US, UK and Europe all threatening to introduce further sanctions on China. But in some ways, Law told me, he is “not very shocked” by Hong Kong’s continuing slide away from semi-autonomy. The principle of “one country, two systems”, which China promised to uphold when the territory was transferred from British control in 1997, has seemed increasingly void for months.

Rumours of Beijing’s intolerance of the banned members were already rife, Law notes. This is not the first time Hong Kong’s legislators have been affected by arbitrary rulings from above. Protesters have been locked in jail, news outlets are increasingly censored, and parliamentarians “are not allowed to say anything that violates the rhetoric of the [Chinese Communist] party or the way the party acts,” he warns. “I think Beijing will turn Hong Kong increasingly into just another Chinese city.”

Law would know. The articulate, bespectacled 27-year-old has long been at the forefront of resistance against Beijing’s authoritarian creep. Raised in state housing by parents who emigrated from mainland China, in 2014 he emerged as a key face of the pro-democracy Umbrella movement and was later elected to serve as the city’s youngest-ever lawmaker. Since then he has himself been barred from the legislature for failing to properly read the oath of office, thrown in jail for two months, and in July this year fled to London after the introduction of a new national security law by Beijing criminalised most forms of protest.

[See also: What I learned from the Hong Kong refugee who came to stay

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The difference in this latest case, however, Law says, is that the dismissed legislators are “not seen as very provocative, aggressive activists”, but rather as “mainstream, moderate” politicians. Their expulsion “shows that the tolerance of Beijing towards opposition has really deteriorated”.

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So what more can international governments do to stem the relentless erosion of Hong Kong’s democratic rights? On Thursday morning, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the move represented a “clear breach” of the 1997 Sino-British joint declaration. The government also summoned the Chinese ambassador in protest.

Law describes the UK’s response as “a very strong signal”. But he notes that the British government also described the implementation of the national security law back in June as a similar “breach”, to little discernible effect.

More is now needed than simple “name and shame tactics, or lip service”, he argues. In their place, greater scrutiny of Chinese state enterprises abroad, sanctioning the individuals responsible for human rights violations and adding human rights clauses to trade deals could all be considered.

“We need an alliance that includes major democracies in the world – and to combat the authoritarian expansion of China. On the one hand, policies are needed to put pressure on Beijing to tackle its own human rights violations, and on the other, to prevent infiltration into democracies and into the UK.”

For examples of such infiltration, Law points to the soft power wielded through organisations such as the Confucius Institute, as well as the use of China’s economic weight to censor free speech in the business world.

[See also: How Beijing’s new security law is already changing lives]

But where China’s response to international pressure is concerned, Law doesn’t hold out much hope. He doesn’t think Beijing will retreat from its “heavy-handed approaches”, and instead fears that the suppression “will only become stronger in the future.” Now that the legislative council has been stripped of those critical of the Chinese Communist Party, other professions could soon follow, such as the academic and legal fields, he warns.

As for Law himself, he feels “relatively safe” in London. But not completely so. Reports in Chinese state media state that Law is wanted by Hong Kong police on suspicion of violating the national security law. If he returns, he could face a life sentence in jail. “We all understand how far-reaching China’s reach could be, so I still have to live a very cautious and vigilant life,” he said, referring to news of Chinese agents travelling overseas to intimidate and threaten dissidents.

As for other Hong Kong exiles in his position, Law welcomes UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s extension of the rights of people who hold British National Overseas status from the territory, including the right to remain in the UK for five years and then seek citizenship. But he argues that these protections should be extended to many currently ineligible for the status, such as those born after the 1997 handover.

Law’s fears also prevent him from communicating directly with his family. And by staying out of contact he hopes to protect them from the reports of surveillance and intimidation suffered by the families of dissidents in mainland China. “I miss every bit of Hong Kong: its culture, its language, its food and its people,” he says. “But I think there will always be a part of Hong Kong staying in my heart and mind forever – and I hope that I can retain it till the day I can finally go back.”