China on Wednesday confirmed reports of a reshuffle of several key officials in Hong Kong, following reports that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is taking a more direct role in the running of the once-autonomous city.
China's State Council announced the removal of constitutional and mainland affairs secretary Patrick Nip, whose responses last week to questions over the role of China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong were later "corrected" by his boss, chief executive Carrie Lam.
Nip was instead appointed secretary for the civil service, while hardliner Erick Tsang took over from him.
Lam told a news conference that the reshuffle had nothing to do with last week's controversy, during which China asserted that its liaison office isn't subject to a ban on interference by its departments in Hong Kong's internal affairs, but instead is authorized to play a "supervisory role" in the day-to-day running of the city.
University of Hong Kong social science lecturer Ken Yau said the central government is sending a signal with this reshuffle that the city's senior officials need to take the views of Beijing's Central Liaison Office into account when making decisions, or they too could face similar consequences.
He said the appointment of Chris Hui as secretary for financial services and the treasury, replacing colonial-era veteran James Henry Lau, also showed the growing politicization of the Hong Kong government with hard-line pro-China officials.
The announcement came amid fears that the authorities would withhold approval for an annual vigil in Victoria Park commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, for the first time in 31 years.
The Ming Pao newspaper quoted police on Wednesday as saying that approval for public gatherings would depend on the coronavirus situation, and whether current restrictions on public gatherings remain in place.
It said police were unlikely to approve an application for an International Workers' Day march on May 1, and hadn't even considered an application for the annual July 1 protest march yet.
Staff said the football pitches and grassy areas where people usually gather for the June 4 candlelight vigil are currently closed, with no indication of when they will reopen.
Secretary for Security John Lee said the matter would be decided by police based on current legislation.
Vigil organizer Lee Cheuk-yan said his Alliance in Support of the Democratic Patriotic Movement in China had applied for a permit, but have had no response.
"The government should not use the epidemic to suppress the freedom of assembly," Lee said. "On what basis will they be preventing the vigil? Does the Chinese Communist Party want to silence all of Hong Kong's voices?"
'The Chinese Communist Party is clamping down now'
Last year's 30th anniversary saw 180,000 people crowd into Victoria Park for the vigil, with many in Hong Kong still remembering the pain and horror when news of the massacre was blazoned across their TV screens.
On May 21, 1989, around 1.5 million Hongkongers had turned out in a peaceful rally supporting the student-led democracy movement in mainland China.
"We know that things are going to get more and more difficult in the future, because the Chinese Communist Party is clamping down now," Lee told RFA. "Hong Kong's prospects are looking more and more gloomy: we are basically becoming part of the same system through China's interventions."
"We will continue to support freedom of assembly for the people of Hong Kong, and continue to mourn the June 4, 1989 massacre," he said.
Current affairs commentator Liu Ruishao said the event could wind up being scattered across Hong Kong, much in the same way that the protest movement last year broke up into smaller events across all of the city's districts.
"Surely it will be possible to mark June 4 without a fixed location, in some appropriate and yet legal manner?" Liu said. "The event could be spread across the whole of Hong Kong."
"People shouldn't be intimidated by the big bad authority [of China]; instead we should allow even greater popular wisdom to emerge as a result of this official pressure," he said.
Beijing has ushered in an era of more direct political control over Hong Kong, with the cabinet reshuffle and a slew of statements targeting pro-democracy figures in recent days.
The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) of China's cabinet, the State Council, has made an unprecedented string of public statements reasserting China's rule over the city, which was promised a "high degree of autonomy" following the 1997 handover.
"Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong," the office said in a statement on its website.
"People in the opposition camp and some radicals accuse the central government of interfering in Hong Kong’s high [degree of] autonomy, but ignore or even invite ... interference by foreign forces in enforcement actions by the police and the Department of Justice," the statement said.
The HKMAO also threw its support behind the recent arrests of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, and constitutional expert Margaret Ng, who were among 15 pro-democracy figures charged with "illegal assembly" at the weekend.
Police on Wednesday said they had charged two teenagers with the murder of 70-year-old cleaner Luo Changqing, who was hit on the head with a brick during a clash between protesters and other residents outside Sheung Shui MTR station on Nov. 13, 2019.
Reported by Man Hoi-tsan and Gao Feng for RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.