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.