Hong Kong's government has rejected an application for the city's traditional pro-democracy rally marking the anniversary of the 1997 handover to China, ahead of a widely expected visit to the city by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Officials said they had decided to allow a pro-Beijing group to use Victoria Park, the usual starting point of mass marches organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, instead.
The Hong Kong Celebrations Association was given priority over the Civil Human Rights Front because it is a charity, they told government broadcaster RTHK.
Amid concerns that the government is seeking to limit displays of public dissent ahead of this year's 20th anniversary of the handover, march organizer Au Nok-hin called the ruling "ridiculous."
"It seems that the pro-establishment camp can have its celebrations, but ordinary people aren't allowed to have a demonstration," Au said. "It is very clear that this all fits in with their plan to clear the decks ahead of a visit by Xi Jinping for the 20th anniversary."
"They don't want the people of Hong Kong to come out onto the streets to show opposition to the government."
He said the move makes a mockery of the promises of a "high degree of autonomy" and the maintenance of Hong Kong's traditional freedoms made by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in a 1984 treaty on the handover.
"One country, two systems has been so successful that you can't even get a permit to start a demonstration," Au said. "They are trying to shut us down."
The group said it would now apply for access to a different area of the park, one of the few green spaces in highly urban downtown Hong Kong, for the starting point.
Lawmaker Jimmy Ng denied there was any wrongdoing on the part of the government.
"If the organization had submitted an application well in advance, on paper, and the government approved it ... then there isn't a problem, procedurally speaking," he said. "I am satisfied that [the government] acted appropriately."
Retired Pro-Beijing politician Tam Yiu-chung, a key figure in the Hong Kong Celebrations Association, said the group is "broadly representative" of Hong Kong society.
"The government is promoting the 20th anniversary celebrations, and we will be putting on some activities on that day as well," Tam told reporters.
"I think this is worth supporting. If other people have other events, they can hold them somewhere else," he said.
Police in the city last month arrested nine pro-democracy activists in what rights groups and pan-democratic politicians said was an ongoing purge of dissenting voices in the former British colony.
The activists, who include the chairman of a social democratic party and two members of a new political party formed by student leaders of the 2014 democracy movement, were arrested on charges of "unlawful assembly" and other public order offenses in relation to a Nov. 6 anti-Beijing demonstration.
The arrests came a day after police arrested two pro-independence former lawmakers-elect, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung, for "unlawful assembly" after the courts disqualified them from office for changing the wording of their oaths of allegiance on Oct. 12.
Activists said the move is part of a political "clean-up" operation ahead of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China on July 1.
The erosion of Hong Kong's traditional freedoms of speech, publication, and judicial independence in recent years and a stalled timetable for full democracy have coincided with growing talk of independence, particularly among the younger generation of activists.
Some 40 percent of young people support the idea, compared with around 70 percent who oppose it across all age groups, according to recent opinion polls.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.