As I had coffee with my friend Nathan Law in London last week, he casually mentioned that he had been voted number one in TIME magazine’s readers’ poll of the top 100 most influential people in the world. At just 27, that is quite something.
Nathan is exceptional. At the age of just 23, he was elected Hong Kong’s youngest ever legislator. After only nine months in office, he was disqualified from Hong Kong’s legislature by a reinterpretation of the constitution demanded by the Chinese Communist Party regime in Beijing, for the simple reason that he quoted Mahatma Gandhi when he took his oath of office. A month later, he was sentenced to eight months in jail, for his role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
I first met Nathan in November 2016, when he came to London as a newly elected legislator and I was asked to help introduce him to his fellow Parliamentarians in Westminster. I was immediately struck by his deep modesty, humility, decency, poise and even normality — and yet a very apparent sense of mission. He combined an inner core of steel and determination, with an easy-going demeanour that made him much easier to talk with than many ambitious politicians. There was none of the brashness that goes with many politicians on the rise — and yet a gentle, profound wisdom and quiet self-confidence that far belied his years.
In August 2017, as I was in Indonesia for work, Nathan and his colleagues Joshua Wong and Alex Chow were on trial for their role in the Umbrella Movement three years earlier. As I sat in a Surabaya traffic jam — which anyone who knows Indonesia knows provides much thinking time — I thought about their trial and what might come. I knew my own commitment to Hong Kong’s struggle turned a corner there and then. I knew that it was no longer a spare-time interest, but a lifetime calling. And I knew that I could not do it alone, that I needed a team and an organisation. That was the genesis of the organisation I went on to co-found and build with colleagues, Hong Kong Watch.
A few days later, these three courageous activists were sentenced. I was on holiday in Bali by then. As soon as I heard the news, I knew someone needed to act. For a few seconds I thought: “someone needs to speak out, someone should organise a statement, someone should mobilise politicians”. With a somewhat heavy heart — both because I never wanted Hong Kong, the city which had been my home for the first five years after the Handover and because I had enough on my plate and was on holiday — it dawned on me. Perhaps that someone is me.
I left the beach, opened my computer, drafted a statement, emailed every dignitary I knew, and within 24 hours of Nathan, Joshua and Alex’s imprisonment, a statement signed by 25 international dignitaries was released. That statement, I am told, had more of an impact in Hong Kong than I expected. I continued to campaign for Nathan, Joshua and Alex, and a month or so later 12 leading international lawyers released a statement criticising their sentence. A short time later my three friends were released.
While Nathan, Joshua and Alex were in jail, I tried to visit Hong Kong. In October 2017, I was denied entry on the orders of Beijing — partially because they suspected, wrongly, that I was going to try to visit my three friends in prison. That was not the plan — but the result was that I could not even visit my friends in Hong Kong who were free. Nathan, Joshua and Alex were locked up, and I was locked out, and that will always be a bond that binds us together in spirit, though the price they paid for the cause of freedom was – and remains – significant, whereas mine is token.
The next time Nathan and I met was when he came to the United Kingdom a year later, at my invitation, together with the father of Hong Kong’s democracy movement Martin Lee and one of the organisers of Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy Movement — which morphed into the Umbrella Movement — Benny Tai.
Among the various political and public meetings that Nathan, Martin, Benny and I did together in October 2018, there was one that I think will remain in all our minds. At the Conservative Party Conference, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and Hong Kong Watch co-hosted an event chaired by the Member of Parliament Fiona Bruce, on Hong Kong.
Nathan, Benny, Martin and I all spoke, and then — just before we were about to conclude — we were disrupted by a Chinese state television journalist who screamed abuse at me, then at our three Hong Kong speakers, and then assaulted a volunteer when he politely suggested she sit down. Indeed, she slapped him three times, the final slap went viral on the Internet, and she was arrested and convicted of assault. So Nathan and I shared what became known as the “Kong Lin Lin Incident”.
Over the subsequent eighteen months, Nathan and I kept in touch from time to time, but I never expected to see the day when he would arrive in Britain as an exile. After Beijing imposed its national security law on Hong Kong, Nathan fled the city – knowing that the movement needed a voice in the outside world and that if he stayed, he and all his colleagues faced the prospect of jail.
Soon after Nathan arrived in London, we met. Indeed, Nathan was the first person I met for lunch with in a restaurant after our Covid-19 lockdown restrictions eased. And after that lunch I took him to see the home of one of my political heroes, William Wilberforce, who was elected as a Member of Parliament aged 21 in 1780 — just two years younger than Nathan when he won his seat in Hong Kong’s legislature.
Wilberforce led what amounted to perhaps the first ever human rights campaign, against the slave trade. It took him more than 40 years, but year on year he introduced legislation to abolish slavery and, with the help of grassroots activists and a nationwide campaign, he chipped away at it until he succeeded. In one speech, Wilberforce said words that stay as my motto: “We can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it … we cannot turn aside”.
Nathan already carries a heavy burden. And I don’t in any way want to add to his burdens or to raise expectations unfairly. But knowing Nathan, in his quiet, stable, quite remarkable decency — which I admired when we first met four years ago and which has only strengthened and grown since — is absolutely the Wilberforce of Hong Kong. He totally deserves the backing of TIME readers, both for himself and his own record and more importantly as a symbol of support for the entire movement for democracy for Hong Kong.
And if the Nobel Peace Prize Committee were wise enough to give this year’s award to the people of Hong Kong as a whole, as I and others have recommended, I can think of no worthier person to receive it on their behalf than Nathan Law.
As we finished our coffee in Islington, and after chatting about life in prison in Hong Kong, Nathan said he had to run because he had a football match. That’s the humanity of the guy. And that’s why he deserves the world’s applause — for his own character and work, and on behalf of his people. Whatever happens, he’ll always be my friend – and hero.
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