A report from the Chinese authorities claiming Stormont’s leaders said they respected new security laws in Hong Kong has been amended to remove the controversial statement.
The comments were initially attributed to First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a teleconference with Chinese consul general in Belfast Madame Zhang Meifang last month.
A translated version of a report which appeared on the consulate’s website claimed the ministers stated that the Northern Ireland Executive “understands and respects Hong Kong’s national security legislation”.
Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill moved to distance themselves from the comments after an Irish News report on the website account yesterday.
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. The leaders faced calls to publish their own minutes from the virtual meeting.
Later yesterday afternoon, the report on the website was changed, with the reference to Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill’s comments on the Hong Kong situation having been removed.
The new laws, imposed by Beijing at the end of June, have given the authorities more powers to clamp down on and punish pro-democracy protesters.
They have been met with widespread international criticism amid claims the powers undermine free speech and curtail Hong Kong’s autonomy under the long-established “one country, two systems”.
The story about the Stormont meeting with Madame Zhang had prompted calls for clarity.
Amnesty International was among those urging the Executive to make public its own account of the meeting.
Mrs Foster said she would be writing to Madame Zhang to voice disappointment. She said her position on Hong Kong was no different to the UK Government’s and that what she said at the meeting was “misrepresented”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has condemned the new laws as a violation of China’s treaty with the UK when Hong Kong was handed over in 1997.
The DUP leader tweeted: “My position on Hong Kong is the same as that of HMG.
“The article in today’s press misrepresents what was said at our meeting with the Chinese consul general. I will be writing to Madame Zhang to underscore my disappointment.”
Responding to the report, Ms O’Neill tweeted: “I made it very clear that I supported the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ international agreement.”
Patrick Corrigan, from Amnesty, highlighted that the meeting happened days after images emerged that appeared to show hundreds of hooded Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province being transported from a train station.
Mr Corrigan, Amnesty International UK’s Northern Ireland programme director, said: “The Chinese government says that Northern Ireland’s political leaders have endorsed their draconian actions in Hong Kong and remained silent about human rights violations in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.
“Surely this cannot be true.
“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. We need to hear a clear public condemnation from Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill of what the Chinese government is doing in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.”
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister also called for clarification.
“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 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,” he said.
The Executive Office did not immediately move to publish a record of the call. A spokeswoman for the Stormont administration said the call involved a briefing by the consul general on the situation in Hong Kong.
“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,” she said.
“As these matters are not devolved, ministers stated their awareness of the issues and their hope that the matter could be resolved.”
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.
Before it was amended, the report stated: “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.
“Mutually beneficial cooperation in the fields of prevention and control, local cooperation, economy, trade and tourism will better benefit the people of both sides.”