HKFP Reports Hong Kong Interviews Politics & Protest

Interview: Student leader Nathan Law reflects on Umbrella Movement and the road to democracy

HKFP Occupy one year on

The General Secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) Nathan Law talks to HKFP as the city marks the first anniversary of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.

HKFS was one of the organisations at the forefront of the 79-day movement. Founded in 1958, it is the biggest student organisation in Hong Kong. It was also the only group invited for a dialogue with the government during the mass protests.

Law is a 22-year-old junior student at Lingnan University. He was one of the five most prominent student leaders during the movement and was elected general secretary of HKFS in March this year.

nathan law hkfs

Nathan Law talks to HKFP. Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

HKFP: Last year, pictures of thousands of protesters occupying roads in Hong Kong dominated headlines around the world. Now a year later, it seems there is no trace left of the Umbrella Movement. Where have people gone?

Nathan Law: To be very honest, I’m just as curious as you are. I have had a time when I was puzzled about where all these people are. But I realised that not everyone has the capacity to sustain their passion on social movement or democratic movement. And I think if there is a time you have to mobilise these people they will come out again. For example, if there is another class boycott, or there is another occupation, they will come out again. I still have faith in the Hong Kong people and all those millions of people who have participated in the occupation.

HKFP: Has the public’s support for Hong Kong’s democratic movement faded away?

Nathan Law: I’d rather look at this issue on the other side, I think when there is no political agenda, it is very hard to for you to mobilise people or for people to show their support publicly. Because when you look back two years ago, there were a lot of things on the political agenda like Occupy Central and political reform consultation. When there is a political agenda, you have the condition to run a political campaign. But there is none now, there is no consultation and there is not anything that we can react on. So the mobilisation of people has to be more difficult than before.

HKFP: Who is going to set the next political agenda for Hong Kong? The HKFS?

Nathan Law: Well, I think it is very unlikely that we will do it. After all, I think the one who has the most power to set the agenda is the government. Because a lot of reform, or in terms of improving democracy, it has to begin with the government and they have to be willing to change or at least launch some consultation. So I think most likely it is from the one who has power.

HKFP: So you don’t think the students have the ability to set the agenda?

Nathan Law: To be accurate, I think, for at least this one year, it is very hard for any of us to set the agenda because there is nothing that we can react on. And the second point is that we are in a phase of producing courses and theories, because in the Umbrella Movement, from observing the reaction from the government we can see that the political theories that we relied on in the past 20 or 30 years of democracy movement, they failed, and people now have nothing to believe in. So we are in the phase where everyone is trying to produce something, to produce theories, and we have to have a period of calmness now and try to think about Hong Kong’s future. So I think, in this half year, it is very unlikely for anyone of us to organise a mass movement.

Oscar Lai, Yvonne Leung, Nathan Law, Lester Shum and Alex Chow.

Nathan Law (centre) at the Occupy protests. File photo: HKFP.

HKFP: In a recent interview, one of the three Occupy Central initiators, Benny Tai, said he regretted that the Umbrella Movement didn’t end earlier. He said the movement lost recognition and sympathy from the public because it lasted too long. What do you think?

Nathan Law: To be honest, I don’t think that’s the correct way of looking back to the occupation, because if you had gone, say, after the dialogue with the government, there would have been people saying that why don’t you keep the momentum, maybe if you stay on the street for 20 more days and democracy will come to Hong Kong. There would have been a lot of assumptions even if we had left the street. I don’t think that’s the reason why the occupation failed in the sense that we could not get any concrete progress on Hong Kong’s democracy. I think the most important thing we learned from the occupation is what is the problem with our past several years of social movement or democratic movement. And the right way of dealing with this is to really dig deep on it and see how we can fix it in the future.

HKFP: After the Umbrella Movement, HKFS saw an internal crisis in which several student unions left. How did that happen? 

Nathan Law: I don’t think this issue was triggered from the movement, it was triggered from the government. Because only by the occurrence of the movement, the government showed how ugly they were to the world and to the students. A lot of students realising that the ordinary way of protest can not alter or cannot have any impact on the behaviour of the government, they somehow turned to a more radical way. So I think this kind of separation or division within the students is caused by the lost of faith in the government. I don’t think it has direct link to the movement, it has direct link to the performance of the government in the occupation.

nathan law hkfs

Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

HKFP: You have been charged with obstructing police, illegal assembly and inciting others to take part in an illegal assembly. How do you feel about the legal fallout of organising and taking part in the Umbrella Movement? Do you expect to face other charges in the future?

Nathan Law: I think definitely they will have other charges because the reason why they put charges on you is that it is extremely annoying especially for poor students like me, I have to apply for legal assistant from the government and I have to travel three hours from my home to the court and apply for this kind of things. So it is very difficult for me to, I mean, it is very annoying for me to fight with them in these legal procedures. So I think there will definitely be more charges, it keeps me more annoyed and that’s what they want.

HKFP: You are annoyed? Not scared?

Nathan Law: Not really scared, because I had my mental preparation for months and I realised the condition of the jail is not that bad. Well for me as a university student, I have my biological clock messed up, I sleep at 3am and wake up at 11am. If you are in jail, you have a very scheduled and regular biological clock, so I think that’s one of the benefits of being in prison. I’m just joking. To be very honest, if it isn’t long, for example if it isn’t a year, it is a month then I think it’s quite acceptable, I’m not really scared of it.

nathan law hkfs

Nathan Law in a press conference this month. Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

HKFP: After the government’s proposal on constitutional reform was voted down in the legislature, there have been two main suggestions about the way forward in Hong Kong’s democratic movement. Some suggested relaunching the public consultation on political reform while others said we should amend the Basic Law. What is HKFS’ stance on this issue? What is the way forward in Hong Kong’s democratic movement?

Nathan Law: We always support amending the Basic Law, because from the very beginning, the Hong Kong people were not consulted about the draft of the Basic Law. There was no legitimate process for us to approve the Basic Law. So I think there are a lot of details in the Basic Law which are not beneficial to the Hong Kong people, and we have to amend it in order to achieve our autonomy and protect our human rights from the government. So I think amending the Basic Law is one of the things that HKFS upholds.

HKFP: But is amending the Basic Law realistic since any amendment will have to be approved by the National People’s Congress?

Nathan Law: Well, a lot of people say that getting democracy from the Communist Party is not realistic. So I think the most important thing is how much public support we can gain for our campaign instead of guessing, the people who are in power, whether they are willing to meet our demands or not. I believe that there will be more and more people noticing there are a lot of problems in the Basic Law. But it takes time because the Basic Law education, or the legal education in Hong Kong is very poor, in term of mass education. So I think it takes time for us to make it more popular and try to proceed with another campaign.

HKU main building

University of Hong Kong main building. Photo: HKU

HKFP: What does the HKFS plan to do to promote the amendment of the Basic Law, in the short run and in the long run?

Nathan Law: Well, if you are talking about concrete plans, there is none, because we are still looking for clues on how to proceed with it. And the most important thing, or our first priority in this term, is higher education. Because you can see that there have been a lot of interventions of the government in our higher education. For example things that happened at Hong Kong University, the government is obviously intervening in the internal affairs of the Hong Kong University, and we do not accept that. The higher education in Hong Kong has a very strong tradition of academic freedom. So I think it is a very important issue, and HKFS may focus on this issue in the following months. There is no long-term plan for HKFS because, I mean, we basically change our leadership year by year. It’s hard to talk about plans, but there will be some spirits that we will pass on. People in HKFS in the future will inherit our spirits like fighting for democracy and freedom, and we do everything that we believe in. So I think this spirit will go on.

Interview: Student leader Nathan Law reflects on Umbrella Movement and the road to democracy