On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, officially known as the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It included a secret protocol that defined the territories of the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as parts of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. In June 1940, during the Battle of France, under the auspices of the protocol, the Soviet Internal Troops occupied the three states.

But until the late 1980s, the Soviet Union still refused to acknowledge the existence of the secret protocol and insisted that the three Baltic states joined voluntarily, despite a series of demands from the citizens of the states urging the Soviet authorities to admit wrongdoing and declare The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact an immoral and criminal act.

Baltic Way. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Kusurija.

In order to make their voices heard and share their demands with the world, the Baltic people decided to come together for a peaceful, rational, and non-violent act that later became known as “The Baltic Way”.

On August 23, 1989, 2 million of the total 8 million citizens coming from all different walks of life in the Baltic States – including some local Communist Party officials – went out onto the streets. They held each others’ hands and formed a 600-kilometre human chain that spanned from the city to the countryside, stretching across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, connecting Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, the capitals of the three Baltic states. Starting at 7pm, 2 million people linked hands peacefully for 15 minutes. Afterwards, some people held candles, some waved flags and sang nostalgic songs from their homelands; others – like monks – chanted scriptures and held ceremonies under the holy cross as church bells rang.

The moments were shared worldwide and created a global ripple effect. People from Berlin, Moscow, Melbourne, Stockholm, Toronto and Tbilisi all formed similar human chains to show their support for the Baltic people. With attention from the entire world, the Soviet Union publicly acknowledged the existence of the secret protocol and declared the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact invalid.

In 2009, after the upheaval in Eastern Europe, files documenting The Baltic Way were archived in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register to recognise its universal importance. Meanwhile, the European Parliament designated August 23 as International Black Ribbon Day, or Remembrance Day for Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (also known as European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism). This day of the year has since been used to commemorate a new page in the history of the human rights movement, and human chains have since become a symbol of peaceful resistance against totalitarian rule.

Looking back at history, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda – who participated in The Baltic Way – said that the Baltic Chain has become a unique event that inspires other countries today. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid pointed out that the Baltic Way was one of the most noteworthy peaceful appeals in world history. The Latvian president, Egils Levits, said that it was a “political innovation back in the day, something no one had tried before”. And Latvian Minister of Culture Nauris Puntulis said: “For the first time, people could believe that their voices and participation actually did count, and we could make a difference.”

30 years later, on August 23, 2019, Hongkongers rewrote history. 210,000 people formed a 60-mile Hong Kong Way to continue voicing their five demands. Like three decades earlier, the event attracted wide media attention and inspired people from around the world. Citizens of Toronto, Japan, and Lithuania formed similar human chains to show their support for Hongkongers’ pursuit of freedom.

Photo: Kaiser/USP United Social Press.

At the same time, the Communist Party’s official media – as it has been doing since the beginning of the Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests – demonised non-violent resistance against the regime as “subversion of the central government.” It has labelled Hongkongers as rioters, and waged a propaganda and misinformation war against the peaceful Hong Kong Way. State media claimed that the action was advocating Hong Kong’s independence and that it “destroyed Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability”.

But, as one of the organisers “Ms. K” mentioned in a Facebook statement, the intentions were clear: “We hope that governments and citizens (including mainland Chinese citizens) from countries around the world could stand with Hong Kong. We hope that different governments and Chinese citizens will call on the Chinese government authorities to adhere to the one country two systems principle and return the high degree of autonomy and democracy that Hong Kongers deserve to the people, as solemnly listed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law. This is not just a political issue, but more importantly, a cause about human rights, freedom, and moral conscience… We hope to take the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way not to advocate for separation but to reiterate that our five major demands are indispensable. ”

Photo: Edwin Lee.

Another highlight of the event was that, as the curtain of night fell, more than 200 Hong Kongers extended the human chain to Lion Rock and lit up the mountain ridge with their cell phones. Some participants said that, while sitting together on the mountaintop, they sang Glorious Years by the well-known band ‘Beyond’, which is about the struggle of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. They also sang Below the Lion Rock, widely regarded as the city’s unofficial anthem. The stunt may have stimulated more tears than the tear gas did. And others said that Lion Rock represents Hongkongers’ ‘deathless’ spirit – they want to make their voices heard here.

The Lion Rock spirit, also known as the spirit of Hong Kong, originated from the TV series Below the Lion Rock and its theme song. It portrayed how Hongkongers battled with numerous hardships and improved their lives in a myriad of ways through unity, hard work, and resilience in the 1960s and 1970s — a difficult yet dynamic era for the city, during which most residents lived in the shadow of the Kowloon peak. Therefore, Lion Rock has been widely seen as a representation of Hongkongers’ indomitable spirit.

At a time of great turmoil in a city seen as Asia’s beacon of hope, a magnificent human chain across the Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories is a powerful way to convey a message to the Chinese Communist Party’s totalitarian regime and the world. Hongkongers will always stay united in their steadfast determination to defend freedom, democracy, the rule of law – the fundamentals of human rights, will never break. The historic Hong Kong Way has redefined the Lion Rock spirit.

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Flora Yan

Flora Yan studied political science and communications at the University of Washington in Seattle.