Big change starts small. This was the advice Nathan Law – activist, politician, and student – gave to students at Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) during Monday’s Symposium on Democracy.
Law was interviewed by W&J President Dr. John C. Knapp for a segment titled “Students as Agents of Change: The Movement for Democracy in Hong Kong.”
Law, who is currently studying at Yale University for a masters degree in East Asian Studies, is on the front lines of fighting for a democratic Hong Kong. In 2016, at age 23, he became the youngest lawmaker in the history of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. Upholding non-violent civic actions, he, Joshua Wong, and other student leaders founded Demosistō, and also co-founded Network of Young Democratic Asians (NOYDA). In 2018, Law, Wong, and fellow student activist Alex Chow were nominated for the Nobel Peace.
But these big things, he said, started with the small act of joining the Lingnan University Students’ Union as an undergraduate, which he did because he felt a responsibility to do something.
“I’m privileged to have an education,” he said. “We have the tools to analyze why so many people are suffering in the world…I thought, ‘I should do something.’”
Law talked about finding other students who shared his passion, and what it was like to realize they could work together to change society. He recalled a moment early in the Umbrella Movement when he read a survey asking about his readiness to be arrested as part of the movement. At the time, he thought simply, “no.” But he said when your inner drive is strong enough, it motivates you to take the first step forward.
During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, Law was one of the five representatives who took part in the dialogue with the government, debating political reform. He was later jailed for his participation in the Umbrella Movement, but it hasn’t stopped him and others from continuing to take those steps forward.
“Freedom and democracy are really fragile,” he said. “You have to protect it…We need to be very focused on what’s happening in society. Otherwise, the things that we treasure will be lost.”
Law said the movement for a democratic Hong Kong is leaderless by design, allowing many people to pick up and continue to the work. Participants are encouraged to “be water,” he said, meaning that they focus on water’s fluidity, a mentality that allows them to be swift and make a move where and when it is needed. He said that by working together, he believes the movement can be successful.
“Working on something that is right and correct does not give you a joyful moment always, but at the end of the day when you look back it will be worth it.”
About the Symposium on Democracy
Led by expert speakers, faculty and students, the Symposium on Democracy is held each year on Presidents Day and examines issues and challenges inherent in sustaining democratic societies and institutions. Founded in the last days of the American Revolutionary War, Washington & Jefferson College has been committed to fostering democracy and responsible citizenship for well over two centuries. Learn more at www.washjeff.edu/democracy.
About Washington & Jefferson College
Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.