First Minister Arlene Foster has hit back at claims she made comments that supported new widely-condemned security laws in Hong Kong in a meeting with the Chinese government.
It's after the Irish News reported Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill told Belfast's Chinese Consul General in a video call, they "understand and respect" the new laws passed by China, which made it easier to punish protesters and reduces the city's autonomy.
On Twitter, Arlene Foster said her position on Hong Kong is the same as Her Majesty's Government and that what she said at the meeting was "misrepresented".
"I will be writing to Madame Zhang to underscore my disappointment," she added.
Also posting on Twitter, Michelle O'Neill said of the meeting: "I made it very clear that I supported the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ international agreement."
Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, a source said: "Michelle completely refutes any suggestion she endorsed the laws, it's not an accurate representation of the meeting and she didn't express support. Should the minutes from the meeting emerge, that will be clear."
Hong Kong was handed back to China from British control in 1997 under an agreement which protects certain freedoms for Hong Kong, including freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary and some democratic rights.
In recent weeks, Britain said it will suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and offer a pathway to citizenship for many of the city's residents in light of recent developments.
"This is further evidence that the national security law is being used as a pretext to silence opposition," a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Reuters. "The Hong Kong authorities must uphold the rights and freedoms of its people."
A spokesperson for the Executive Office, in response to criticism, said on Tuesday: “The Consulate’s report does not reflect Ministers’ positions on Hong Kong security legislation, nor their comments at a recent courtesy meeting with the Chinese Consul General.
“As these matters are not devolved, Ministers stated their awareness of the issues and their hope that the matter could be resolved.”
Earlier on Tuesday, TUV leader Jim Allister called on the Executive to publish its own notes on the meeting.
He said: "In light of the appalling record of the Chinese government on human rights and disregard for the international agreement which is still binding in regard to Hong Kong such comments, if accurate, would be totally inappropriate and I believe give an entirely inappropriate impression of how the people of Northern Ireland view what is currently taking place in Hong Kong".
Mr Allister also called on Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill to clarify whether they raised any human rights concerns with Madame Zhang Meifang.
It was also reported the ministers said Stormont "cherishes its friendship with China" and Northern Ireland wants to "further strengthen its cooperation with China" during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International also called on the Executive to publish its notes of the meeting, and for the ministers to publicly condemn events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, a Chinese region where more than 1 million Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in so-called "re-education camps".
Northern Ireland director of Amnesty Patrick Corrigan added: "If this is an accurate report of the meeting, then the First and deputy First Minister have let down the people of Northern Ireland and betrayed the people of Hong Kong and the Uighur community in China."
He said: “Hong Kong is suffering a brutal crackdown on human rights. The new National Security Law is a license for political repression, as shown by the raid on The Apple Daily newspaper offices and arrest of its staff as well as the disqualification of pro-democracy candidates from upcoming elections.
"Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, northwest China, an estimated one million Muslim people have been interned in so-called re-education camps. If the First and deputy First Minister did challenge these human rights abuses, given the official Chinese report, we now need clear evidence of that."
Details of the virtual meeting emerged in a report posted in recent weeks on the Chinese Consulate's website, according to The Irish News.
Madame Zhang is also said to have spoken about Hong Kong's national security legislation, claiming it does not undermine the region's level of autonomy or its residents' freedoms.
The report added: "Foster and O'Neill thanked China for its valuable support for the fight against the epidemic in Northern Ireland.
"They said that the Northern Ireland government cherishes friendship with China, understands and respects Hong Kong's national security legislation, and sincerely wishes Hong Kong more prosperity and stability, and expressed that Northern Ireland is willing to further strengthen its cooperation with China in the epidemic.
"Mutually beneficial cooperation in the fields of prevention and control, local cooperation, economy, trade and tourism will better benefit the people of both sides."