There have been calls for the Executive Office to clarify reported comments about Hong Kong’s new security law.
The first and deputy first ministers allegedly said they “understand and respect” the legislation, imposed by China in June.
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill held a video call with Belfast’s Chinese consul general last month.
In a tweet posted on Tuesday, Mrs Foster said her position on Hong Kong was the same as the UK government’s.
“The article in today’s press misrepresents what was said at our meeting with the Chinese Consul General,” she tweeted.
“I will be writing to Madame Zhang to underscore my disappointment.”
Details of the comments first emerged in the Irish News.
The laws, which give the Chinese state new powers over the city, have drawn widespread international condemnation.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International called on the executive to publish its own notes of the meeting.
A report of the meeting between the ministers and Madame Zhang Meifang was published on the Chinese consulate’s website.
It said others involved in the meeting also included senior civil servant Andrew McCormick.
- China’s new law: Why is Hong Kong worried?
According to a translation, they discussed the pandemic and the strong co-operation between China and Northern Ireland.
It said: “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.”
Amnesty’s Northern Ireland director Patrick Corrigan said the first and deputy first ministers needed to be “clear” about where they stand on the issue.
He said the details of the comments amounted to an “endorsement” of the Chinese government’s policies on human rights.
“We need to see what they are saying on our behalf – we need to see what the first and deputy first ministers did or did not say,” he told BBC News NI.
“Beyond that we need to hear our first and deputy first ministers loudly and publicly clearly condemning what’s going on in Hong Kong – we need to have them stand by our shared values and human rights.
“Diplomacy means being honest not just with your friends but also opponents.
“What we need to hear is not just about cooperation with China but what our first and deputy first ministers’ position is about egregious human rights violations going on right now.
In a statement the Executive Office said: “Ministers held a courtesy call with the Chinese consul general as part of their regular communications on areas of interest to the Executive.
“The consul general also read a Chinese government statement on Hong Kong. International relations are not a devolved matter, but ministers emphasised their awareness of all the issues, including the UK and EU positions, and stressed their hope for the matter to be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned.”
Michelle O’Neill has since tweeted to say she supports the principle of “one country, two systems”.
Hong Kong was handed back to China from British control in 1997, but under a unique agreement – a mini-constitution called the Basic Law and the so-called “one country, two systems” principle.
They are supposed to protect certain freedoms for Hong Kong: freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary and some democratic rights – freedoms that no other part of mainland China has.
The Executive’s Northern Ireland Bureau opened in Beijing opened in 2015.
In its 2019 bulletin the bureau noted that annual trade between Northern Ireland and China had increased from £90m to almost £200m over the previous five years.
Over the same period visitors from China to Northern Ireland rose from an estimated 60,000 to more than 100,000.
Major examples of Chinese direct investment include Portadown-based Thompson Aero Seating, which is owned by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China. SDC Trailers of Toomebridge, was acquired by CIMC Vehicles of Shenzhen in 2016 for a reported £92m.
Both companies warned of potential redundancies in recent months.
Northern Ireland’s universities have benefited from significant co-operation with China.
Queen’s University Belfast has 1,200 Chinese students and Ulster University plays host to the Confucius Institute.
The Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute provides language teaching for schools and training for people wanting to make business connections in China.
What is the new security law?
- Makes “inciting hatred” of China’s central government and Hong Kong’s regional government illegal
- Allows for closed-door trials, wire-tapping of suspects and the potential for suspects to be tried on the mainland
- Means a wide range of acts, including damaging public transport facilities, can be considered terrorism
- Requires internet providers to hand over data if requested by police