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World With lights twinkling, a human chain of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong steps up pressure on China

Protesters stood shoulder to shoulder, the lights of their smartphones joined into great twinkling strings that enveloped a city where demonstrators have found increasingly creative ways to lay demands at the feet of their government.

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

The wall of people snaked past Prada and pawn shops, up the arched back of Lion Rock and down the pinched corridors of Mong Kok, winding through the heart of Kowloon and along the edge of Hong Kong island.

For more than 50 kilometres, organizers said, people stood shoulder to shoulder, the lights of their smartphones joined into great twinkling strings that enveloped a city where demonstrators have found increasingly creative ways to lay demands at the feet of their government. As the evening wore on, tensions rose as riot police prepared to clear protesters from a subway station, although by midnight no clashes had ensued.

The otherwise peaceful “Hong Kong Way” that began at dusk on Friday evening was staged as a deliberate echo of the Baltic Chain, a 675-kilometre human chain formed to demand independence 30 years ago for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

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The historical allusion was a provocative one: Beijing has faulted protesters for advocating separation from China. Most of those on the streets, however, say they want no such thing – merely more democratic freedoms and less interference from the Communist Party.

The lengthy human chain – made up of about 119,000 people, organizers said – offered yet another display of public support for a protest movement that, after more than 70 days, shows little sign of dimming.

The image of tens of thousands of people standing shoulder to shoulder was meant as a “powerful symbol of solidarity, as Hong Kongers literally join hand-in-hand together,” said Jeffrey Ngo, a historian who is the chief researcher for Demosistoo, a youth activist group in the city.

He saw common cause, too, with Baltic protesters from three decades ago.

“We are asserting to the international community our right of self-determination against a seemingly unbreakable authoritarian government, ruled by a Communist Party, that denies its subjects freedoms, democracy, basic dignity and human rights,” he said.

Indeed, interspersed through the protest were signs bearing the flags of democracies around the world: Poland, Japan, France, Germany, Taiwan, Canada – a deliberate attempt to extend the reach of the human wall across borders.

“We are asking for help from other countries,” said Davy Lam, who held a sign bearing a maple leaf and the words: “Canada, Thank you for supporting freedom and democracy!”

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Protesters hold hands to form a human chain during a rally to call for political reforms in Hong Kong.

ANN WANG/Reuters

“The whole world, the global village, we should all line up together,” Mr. Lam said. The experience of being side-by-side with so many others left him emotional. It’s “quite touching,” he said. “In fact, I’m trying not to cry.”

Demonstrators in the city have sought the full withdrawal of a proposed extradition bill, an independent investigation into police conduct, the reversal of a government characterization that protests were “riots,” the exoneration of those previously arrested and the granting of greater democratic freedoms.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has declared the extradition bill “dead,” and the city’s Independent Police Complaints Council has launched an investigation. But the local government, which is backed by Beijing, has refused to meet other demands.

As a result, the city remains locked in a tense stalemate, with protesters seeking new ways to push for change. On Saturday, a “non-co-operation movement” is expected to bring demonstrators back to the Hong Kong airport, which was the scene of violent clashes last week that temporarily closed one of Asia’s most important transportation hubs. Other marches have been planned in other parts of the city throughout the weekend, threatening new clashes with police, who have filled the city’s streets with tear gas over many weekends this summer.

On Friday, local government leaders said the city has suffered as a result. Hotel occupancy has fallen from 90 per cent last August to somewhere less than half that this year. Retail sales so far this month have dropped roughly in half.

Still, demonstrators say they have no intention of letting up.

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“People are really angry,” said Calvin, a financial services worker who declined to provide his last name, for fear of professional retribution. He joined the human chain on Friday night, but said he is skeptical about the prospects for peaceful protest.

The only path he can envision to forcing the hands of local leaders lies in acts of civil disobedience, a prospect that threatens more disruptions in weeks to come in the financial centre.

“What could work, is doing what the government doesn’t want us to do,” he said.

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