HONG KONG — Inspired by an effort 30 years ago in the Baltic states that called for the end of Soviet rule, tens of thousands in Hong Kong on Friday held hands under the night sky to form a human chain snaking 27 miles across the territory, in a vigil against an increasingly authoritarian China intent on clamping down against their protest movement.

“Hong Kongers, Add Oil!” they chanted, a phrase that loosely translates to keep going. “Democracy now!”

Parts of the human chain passed hand sanitizer down the line before holding their hands up in the air, linking themselves with friends, family and strangers. Participants turned on their cellphone lights and waved them toward the sky, illuminating the city’s most iconic neighborhoods, including along Victoria Harbor, as passing cars honked in deafening support.

“I was a bit embarrassed holding strangers’ hands at first,” said one 29-year-old participant who wanted to be identified just by his last name, Lam. “But later, I thought, we are family. Why not?”

As they held their peaceful demonstration — its imagery harking back to the similarly implausible fight against the Soviet Union’s power in 1989 — there were more signs that Beijing is becoming increasingly aggressive in its efforts to stamp out the protests and squeeze entities seen as supportive of them.

Rebecca Sy, who heads a union representing flight attendants from Cathay Pacific’s regional airline, held a news conference Friday announcing her termination, among the more than a dozen aviation industry workers forced out in connection to the political demonstrations. Diplomats too have come under pressure: A Hong Kong passport holder working for the British consulate was detained while trying to return to the semiautonomous territory from Shenzhen, prompting the Canadian consulate to halt mainland visits for its staff.

“All of these events, they are all related to the same thing, which is China taking away our freedoms,” said Noelle, a 53-year old wedged in the line, who only wanted to be identified by her first name for fear of repercussions over her participation. “This is exactly what we don’t want in Hong Kong, and that is why we are here today.”

Noelle, along with a majority of participants, had their faces obscured with masks — an indication of the fear that has gripped this city. Protesters interviewed believe that even participating in peaceful protests can get one fired from their jobs or otherwise put them at risk.

Friday’s human chain, dubbed the “Hong Kong Way,” was an idea borrowed from an almost 400-mile long gathering of 2 million people in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Their demonstration was a bid for independence from the Soviet Union, and the show of unity discredited the Russian narrative at a time when Baltic independence was a fringe idea promoted by a group of radicals. 

The months that followed saw the decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and independence for the Baltic states.

Hong Kong protesters participating in the vigil are fighting for their government to recognize demands that have hardened over their months-long protest movement. Triggered by a now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed fugitives to be transferred to the mainland, demonstrators have been angling for an independent investigation into police use of force; they also want their government to be directly elected, believing their leaders serve Beijing rather than Hong Kong.

The idea for Friday’s protest was first floated on the online messaging board LIHKG.com, which has served as a nucleus for strategies and mobilization over the past weeks. When thousands responded positively to the idea, seeing parallels between their fight against Beijing and that of the Baltic states against Russia, a loose group of organizers came together to discuss logistics and feasibility on the secure messaging app Telegram.

Preparations for the human chain were complex logistically, said a 24-year old organizer who only wanted to be known by the initials J.C. for fear of reprisal. In recent days, groups of volunteers have gone out to test the routes by making a short chain of people, testing out safety issues such as the presence of pedestrian crossings and roads. Organizers created a Google form to poll thousands of people on where they would like to gather and at what time they were planning to show up, and used live metrics on Friday night to assign people to less crowded areas of the city.

The route, which stretched across Hong Kong island, the Kowloon area across Victoria Harbor and the New Territories area which borders mainland China, was deliberately planned near subway stops to make participation convenient. Over 40 so-called “team leaders” were on site on Friday, J.C. said, to direct the crowd and observe any safety considerations.

“We are very excited about it. It is a new form of protest happening in Hong Kong,” he said. “We’ve never done anything like this before.”

Protesters in recent weeks have urged nonviolent ways of getting their government’s attention, after escalating violence between police, those perceived to sympathize with them and protesters. On a pages-long thread on LIHKG.com, some front-line protesters — more accustomed to ripping bricks off sidewalks and preparing for drawn-out confrontations with riot police — admitted that holding hands seemed “lame,” but was an important show of unity at a pivotal time for Hong Kong.

The action on Friday came amid indications of an increasingly multifaceted crackdown on those who support the protests, which has targeted diplomats and multinational corporations in the city, particularly Cathay Pacific Airways. The detention of the British consulate employee, Simon Cheng, was a “lesson of what will happen to us if the extradition bill passed,” added Lam, one of the participants of Friday’s protest.

On Friday, Sy, the head of the flight attendant union, said she was sacked Tuesday after confirming to management that she had posted several messages on her Facebook account that could only be viewed by her friends. She has worked for the airline for 17 years. China’s aviation authority has been exerting unprecedented pressure on Hong Kong’s flagship airline, banning any crew who have expressed support for recent protests from flights through mainland airspace.

In a statement posted on the company website, Cathay Pacific’s director for corporate affairs James Tong said his company “fully supports the upholding of the Basic Law and all the rights and freedoms afforded by it,” referencing the framework that gives Hong Kong significant autonomy from mainland China.

“We are a leading international airline with global operations and therefore we are required to comply with all applicable laws and regulations in the jurisdictions where we operate,” he added.

Panic at Cathay Pacific: China’s threats loom over one of Asia’s leading airlines

Without heroes or martyrs: Hong Kong’s protest movement faces its defining moment

Hong Kong protesters defy threats from Beijing to hold huge — and peaceful — rally

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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