At 23, former Umbrella Movement leader Nathan Law is the youngest elected official in Hong Kong’s history, and already one of its most controversial. Law, along with fellow freshman legislators, immediately left an imprint on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on Wednesday, when councillors were due to be sworn in for their first session of the term.
Sixtus “Baggio” Leung wrapped himself in a banner that read “Hong Kong is not China”; Yau Wai-ching made a biting joke during her oath-taking process, reading the words “the People’s Republic of China” as “the People’s Refucking of Cheena”; and veteran activist Leung Kwok-hung opened a yellow umbrella before tearing up a copy of China’s Hong Kong elections ruling.
Law spoke last. He criticized the Legislature’s decision not to validate his three fellow freshman legislators’ oaths, quoting Gandhi: “You can chain me. You can torture me. You can even destroy this body. But you will never imprison my mind.” Fellow pro-democracy lawmakers stood by the young lawmaker, bringing the Legislature’s proceedings to a standstill for hours.
With their actions, Law and other council newcomers, did what they said they would do — they disrupted Hong Kong’s political landscape, and gave voice to a growing number of Hong Kongers who see their homeland as distinct and separate from mainland China.
Despite Law and like-minded pro-democracy lawmakers’ protests — including a walkout during the vote — the council moved forward and pro-Beijing politician Andrew Leung was voted in as president of the Legislative Council. By law, the president of the council must be a Chinese citizen and not hold the right of abode elsewhere, and the pro-democratic camp insisted, to little avail, that Leung had not shown sufficient proof that he’d renounced his British citizenship.
The chaotic proceedings reaffirmed the pro-Beijing camp’s sway over Hong Kong’s council, and sent a firm reminder to its newcomers that they have their work cut out for them.
Law rode a wave of pro-democracy support into Hong Kong’s LegCo (Legislative Council) this September, which attracted a record turnout. His historic election came two years after the 23-year-old helped to lead the enormous Umbrella Movement demonstrations that rocked Hong Kong for months. Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 and was promised that its rights and freedoms would be maintained until 2047, under a principle known as “One Country, Two Systems.”
VICE News met up with the young lawmaker immediately following his controversial first day on the job. We spoke to him about his initial impressions of Hong Kong’s political theatre, and what he hopes to accomplish as the country’s youngest elected legislator. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What kind of message do you think today’s proceedings send to Hong Kong?
It sends [the message] to Hong Kong people that when you have that power, for the pro-Beijing camp, you don’t have to care about legitimacy, you don’t have to care about logic, you don’t have to care about whether the [LegCo president] candidate is valid or not. You just press the button. So that really frustrates a lot of Hong Kong people, including me. So that is just a bad start for a new term of Legislature.
Do you think that will set the tone for the next four years?
Well, actually, we had less hope on a good start because we knew that even though we are the majority in the society, in the council we are the minority because of the absurd design of our system.
Going from a student activist to a lawmaker, does that change your goals or approach to creating change?
It gives me more responsibility. Because when you are a student activist, you only focus on the same issue and you don’t have much burden or responsibility from different kinds of work. Now that I’ve became a legislator, I have to put more time in it and people expect more from you, so that is the kind of pressure and responsibility added in. But, on the other hand, that is also more motivation because you bear the expectations and trust of the people.
That’s a lot of responsibility for a 23-year-old.
Well, I don’t think there would be less responsibility if you were 70. So the age doesn’t affect your role as a legislator. You still have to do the same work. You should have expectations for yourself at the same level if you were also elected by the people.
You’ve said before that you want to be a representative of your generation. What does your generation want?
It is really difficult to depict a cohesive picture of what my generation wants, but I do believe that for the new generation getting to the council, we need to have more progressive thinking about how the council works and the power of any camp in the legislature. As you can see, there are a lot of unjust things happening in the legislature today, so you have to have a voice, and you have to be really firm about your attitude. Today I think we performed some kind of new ways of thinking in the council.
How important do you think the power of youth is in the pro-democracy movement here?
For the youth, they’re always injecting new energy and injecting new vision into the movement. So it helps not only in getting more people involved in the movement but also for the older generation to continue to reflect and continue to be renewed in certain ways by these new energies. It is really important for us to [give more] input into the democratic movement.
How do you think the repression in Hong Kong has gotten stronger?
As you can see in today’s events, the abuse of power is getting more vigorous. And as you can see, the government is getting very strict with [pro-democracy protesters] and charging more and more young people, and putting them in jail with very serious times. So these are really obvious clues to see that the government is not responding to the just request for democracy from the new generation and the pro-democratic camp, so that’s one of the things that make people worry.
What do you hope to achieve in the next four years?
In the Legislature, I want to push forward the discussion of Hong Kong’s future and discuss [Hong Kong people’s] right to self-determination.
Are you pro-independence?
I think I’m pro–genuine autonomy. If [people think] that One Country, Two Systems is not working, and the government still doesn’t really care if the system is being eroded, [then] more and more people will tend to be more pro-independence. But if the government really wants the current system [to work], then maybe more people [would] believe in One Country, Two Systems. So we really are in a very dynamic situation. What I care about is how people live in this society, [so that] they can enjoy more autonomy, more democracy, more human rights.