HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - Organisers of a pro-democracy rally held annually in July on the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China said on Wednesday (May 10) that they had been denied permission to use a downtown park, a move that threatens to raise tensions ahead of an expected visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The organising group, the Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition of pro-democracy activists, has traditionally used Victoria Park as the starting point for a July 1 rally that calls for universal suffrage and the preservation of civil liberties in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory.
Last year's rally drew at least 19,000 people, and previous ones have drawn hundreds of thousands.
But on Wednesday, the group said in a Facebook post that permission to use the park on July 1 had instead been granted to the Hong Kong Celebrations Association, a group that the local news media identified as being pro-Beijing.
The post said that the Hong Kong authorities had told the Civil Human Rights Front on Tuesday that its application had been a lower priority because it had sought to use the park for free.
An organiser at the Civil Human Rights Front was quoted as telling the local news media that the group was talking with the authorities and still planned to begin the rally at Victoria Park.
The event this year is loaded with significance: It was planned for the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's transfer in 1997 to China from Britain, and Mr Xi is expected to attend ceremonies in the city marking the anniversary.
The denial of permission to use the park also comes after several pro-democracy leaders were recently arrested in what activists say is an effort to quell dissent ahead of the expected visit by Mr Xi.
It would be his first trip to Hong Kong since he assumed full power in 2013.
The Leisure and Cultural Services Department of Hong Kong, which has jurisdiction over the city's parks, did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking details on July 1 bookings in Victoria Park.
Local media has reported that Mr Xi is expected to make a three-day visit to Hong Kong, where he is to swear in the city's next chief executive, Carrie Lam, a long-time civil servant who is trusted by Beijing.
Pro-democracy groups have been planning large protests to coincide with Mr Xi's expected visit and highlight what they see as Beijing's tightening grip on Hong Kong's political freedom, which is supposed to be guaranteed under an arrangement known as "one country, two systems".
The groups have increasingly called for greater autonomy, if not independence, from China.
The recent arrests of pro-democracy activists involved people who led or took part in huge protests that paralysed some areas of Hong Kong in 2014. The charges have included unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct in public.
Two pro-independence politicians, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung, and three of their assistants were also charged last month over their attempt to enter Hong Kong's legislative chamber last year.
Legislators loyal to Beijing had refused to swear them in because they had declared allegiance to a "Hong Kong nation" and replaced the word China with "Shina," an anti-China snub.