Authorities rejected an application on Monday to hold the annual candlelight vigil, which tends to draw a huge crowd outdoors and commemorates those who were killed in the military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In a letter to the organisers of the vigil, police said the event would violate coronavirus social distancing rules which ban gatherings of more than eight people.
The decision also followed a vote by China’s ceremonial parliament to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and impose a controversial national security law on the semi-autonomous region.
Democracy activists and many legal experts have expressed concerns that the law could curtail free speech and opposition political activities, sparking a rush to apply for passports which could allow some residents to move to the UK.
Organiser Lee Cheuk-yan, chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, expressed disappointment at the cancellation and urged people to light candles individually and observe a moment of silence.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International said authorities should have facilitated a socially distanced vigil rather than ban it.
“Covid-19 must not be used as an excuse to stifle freedom of expression,” Joshua Rosenzweig, the group's deputy director for East and Southeast Asia, said.
“With this ban, and a disastrous national security law looming, it is not clear if Hong Kong's Tiananmen vigil will ever be allowed to take place again.”
Hong Kong has reported five local coronavirus infections in the last two days, breaking a nearly two-week streak of no new cases outside of those brought in from abroad.
On Monday, a large crowd lined up at DHL courier outlets across the city with many people sending documents to the UK to apply for or renew a British National Overseas (BNO) passport.
“My BNO passport expired in 2004, but at the time I didn't renew it because I trusted China,” Peter Chan, a 40-year-old who waited in line for more than two hours, told AP news agency.
Mr Chan said he was worried about political and security issues in Hong Kong stemming from the national security law as well as a push by the territory's legislature to enact a bill that would make it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem.
Although he acknowledged rising anti-immigrant and anti-Asian sentiment in the UK, he said it was “still better than Hong Kong” at this time.
The rush for passports came after the UK said last week it was considering allowing BNO passport holders to stay in the country for a year or more.
The UK government has estimated there are 2.9 million people in the city who are eligible for the document, although only about 350,000 Hong Kong residents held BNO passports as of February.
Additional reporting by AP