Authorities reportedly deny permission for Victoria Park a traditional protest venue to be used by pro-democracy demonstrators
Pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong have accused authorities of trying to smother dissent by stopping them congregating in one of the former colonys biggest parks when Xi Jinping visits to commemorate the 20th anniversary of handover.
Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese control on 1 July 1997, demonstrators have used the date to stage sometimes massive annual parades through its streets.
Since 2004 those marches have kicked off in Victoria Park, a 19-hectare public garden that is named after the former British monarch, before heading west to Hong Kongs financial heart.
This year, however, authorities have reportedly decided to deny protest organisers permission to begin their parade there in what critics suspect is an attempt to subdue protests during the Chinese presidents visit.
Instead a pro-Beijing group called the Hong Kong Celebrations Association has been authorised to hold a handover commemoration event in the park.
It is clearly a political decision, complained Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker, condemning the move as a bid to gag the opposition and preserve Xis visual comfort.
In a statement, Hong Kongs Civil Human Rights Front, which organises the annual march, said: The front believes this was done to welcome the visit of Chinese Communist party leaders and is a move to silence dissenting voices made out of political considerations.
Emily Lau, a veteran democracy campaigner, said the highly symbolic move was typical of the clumsy and unreasonable way Hong Kongs government treated those pushing for greater political rights. I guess this time they just wanted to give the venue to people who want to celebrate rather than the protesters.
Speaking to the South China Morning Post, the president of the pro-Beijing group that has secured permission to use Victoria Park showed little sympathy for the pro-democracy demonstrators. The march can always go elsewhere, said Tam Yiu-chung.
Beijing has yet to officially confirm Xis visit but reports in Hong Kong suggest he will spend three days in the semi-autonomous city between 29 June and 1 July. During that time he is expected to take part in handover celebrations and swear in Hong Kongs incoming chief executive, Carrie Lam.
Determined to voice their anger at what many describe as Xis erosion of Hong Kongs much cherished freedoms, activists said they would parade with or without access to Victoria Park.
Rallying at the park is not an absolute must. The key thing is the parade, said Mo, who believes refusing marchers access to Victoria Park could backfire by encouraging more protestors to join the procession.
Lau also vowed to take to the streets, wherever the march began: I will be there.
The former chairwoman of Hong Kongs Democratic party said it was hard to predict how many demonstrators would show up on 1 July. Previous parades have seen hundreds of thousands defy intense heat and rainstorms to take part.
Lau said she did not currently anticipate a huge outpouring of protest but warned simmering discontent with Hong Kongs government and Beijing meant that could easily change. Things are very volatile.