At 23, Hong Kong Lawmaker Promises Feisty Protests Aimed At China | KERA News

At 23, Hong Kong Lawmaker Promises Feisty Protests Aimed At China

Oct 5, 2016
Originally published on October 5, 2016 5:12 pm

Nathan Law may still be taking college coursework, but he's already scored a good job. When I ask how much he'll make now that the 23-year-old has become Hong Kong's youngest legislator in city history, he quietly does the calculation in his head.

"It's around 12,000 U.S. dollars a month," he finally says, "but I'm going to donate much of that to the social movement."

The 2014 Umbrella Movement was named after the umbrellas used to shield protesters from pepper spray and tear gas from police. Those demonstrations helped launch Law as a student protest leader, and has now helped him become an elected official, all before graduating from Lingnan University, where he is a senior, majoring in cultural studies.

Law grew up living in public housing. His father, who escaped China in the 1970s and swam to Hong Kong, worked odd jobs as a cleaner and construction worker, while his mother took care of him and his two older brothers. The family lived paycheck to paycheck.

"If you really look around, there's actually a lot of people living here, living a very underprivileged life," says Law. "When I grew up, I could seldom talk to my family, because they were always working. The wealth gap in Hong Kong is getting more and more serious."

Law says for every Mercedes Benz in Hong Kong, there's a senior citizen picking through trash. Now that he's a legislator, he'd like to help these people.

He believes conditions for millions of working-class Hong Kongers has deteriorated since China began taking control over the city government in 1997. Hong Kong residents no longer directly elect many of the city's legislators. Rather, they're appointed by special interests that are friendly to China's government.

When pressed about specific legislation for the city's working class, Law returns to what he knows best: protesting China's grip over the city. One way to change all of this, he says, is "by changing the political system. So I'll keep organizing civil disobedience. That is very important for us to protest on the streets."

Two years ago, in the heat of protests in central Hong Kong, Law led thousands in chanting "Return Civic Square to us." The square is a public one in front of the government headquarters, and Law and two other activists were arrested for storming it hours later. He avoided a prison sentence and is now doing community service.

But if civil disobedience remains Law's tactic, prison could be a likely result.

"I don't mind to be locked in prison, to be honest, because I have enough mental preparation," says Law. "But one thing I worry is that people may get used to this kind of unjust things. The most important thing is how people react and how concerned they are about the abuse of power."

Law's worried Hong Kongers will have a fatalistic attitude about civil rights now that a timetable is in place for China to regain sovereignty over the city in 30 years.

But how optimistic can Law be when Hong Kong's fate seems to be sealed?

"We will experience a lot of failure, and damage, and trauma in the process of that," Law says. "But if it stops you, and if it scares you, then I could guarantee the ending of Hong Kong and our society and people who really live here will be worse."

Law, who insists on being called Nathan, readjusts himself, pushes his glasses up, and picks at a pimple on his chin. He still lives at home. So what do his parents think?

"Actually, they're really worried because they came from mainland China, and they escaped from mainland China because of economic factors and also political factors," Law says. "There is one quote they always say: 'Just don't mess up things because (the) Communist Party is very scary.'"

But Law also says after many heated family arguments, both his mother and father have begun supporting him and his cause.

"They've realized they can't control their kid," he says.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Thailand refused to lead in a prominent Hong Kong student activist today. The student supporters believe China is behind the decision. They say this is just the latest example of the communist, one-party mainland trying to exert its authority over the democratic island. We're going to meet two young people caught up in this political struggle.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We'll start with 23-year-old Nathan Law. He helped lead the Umbrella Democracy. That was a protest that closed Hong Kong's financial district for weeks in 2014. Last month, voters made him the youngest elected official in the city's history. Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Nathan Law meets me on a windswept terrace overlooking the glass and steel towers of downtown Hong Kong. He's dressed like a student - shorts, T-shirt, backpack. That's because he is a student. He's still taking college courses, and he's already scored a job.

What do you make now that you're an elected official? What's the salary?

NATHAN LAW: It's around 12,000 U.S. dollars per month.

SCHMITZ: That's pretty good.

LAW: Yeah. In Hong Kong, that is.

SCHMITZ: Law plans to donate more than half his salary to social causes. He prefers to live as he's always lived. Law grew up in public housing. His father was a construction worker. His mother took care of him and his two older brothers. They lived paycheck to paycheck.

LAW: If you really look around Hong Kong, there is actually a lot of people living here living a very underprivileged life.

SCHMITZ: Law says for every Mercedes Benz in Hong Kong, there's a senior picking through trash. Now that he's a legislator, he'd like to help these people. But when I pressed him about specific legislation, Law returns to what he knows best - protesting China's grip over the city.

LAW: One thing to change is by changing the political system. And, also, I will keep organizing civil disobedience. That is very important for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking in foreign language).

SCHMITZ: Two years ago, in the heat of protest in Central Hong Kong, Law led protesters in chanting - return the square to us. The square is a public one in front of the government headquarters. Law and two others were arrested for storming it hours later. He avoided a prison sentence and is now doing community service, but if he keeps it up, prison could be a likely result.

LAW: I don't mind to be locked in prison, to be honest, because I have, like, enough mental preparation. But one thing I worry is that people may get used to these kind of unjust things.

SCHMITZ: Law's worried Hong Kongers will have a fatalistic attitude about civil rights now that a timetable is in place for China to regain sovereignty over the city in 30 years.

How do you feel that you could actually create change when it seems like things are already predestined?

LAW: We will experience a lot of fear and damage and trauma in the process of that, but if it stops you and if it scares you, then I could guarantee you that the ending of Hong Kong and our society and the people who really live here will be worse.

SCHMITZ: Law, who insists on being called Nathan, readjusts himself, pushes his glasses up and picks at a pimple on his chin. The 23-year-old still lives at home, and I can't help but think about his parents.

LAW: Actually, they are really worried because they came from mainland China, and they escaped from mainland China because of economic factors and also political factors. There's one, like, quote they always say. Like, just don't mess up things because, like, Communist Party is very scary - things like this.

SCHMITZ: Because Communist Party is very scary, he says. But Law also says that after many heated family arguments, both his mother and father have begun supporting him and his cause. They've realised, he says, that they can't control their kid. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.