Northern Ireland

Hong Kong: Foster says Chinese meeting report 'misrepresented' her views

Police clash with protesters in Hong Kong Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There have been demonstrations in Hong Kong over the new security law, some of which have turned violent

A report of a meeting Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill had with Belfast's Chinese consulate misrepresented views expressed on Hong Kong, the first minister said.

The pair held a video call last month with consul general Madame Zhang Meifang.

A report of the meeting was published in the Irish News on Tuesday.

The ministers allegedly said they "understand and respect" Hong Kong's new security law imposed by China.

But Mrs Foster said her position on Hong Kong was the same as the UK government's, while deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill tweeted that she made it clear that she "supported the 'One Country, Two Systems' international agreement".

Under that, China agreed to give the region a high degree of autonomy and to preserve its economic and social systems for 50 years from the date of the handover in 1997.

Last month, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the Hong Kong's security legislation "constitutes a clear and serious breach" of the Joint Declaration between Britain and China of 1984, violating "the high degree of autonomy of executive and legislative powers and independent judicial authority" for Hong Kong that had been agreed.

However, in a tweet posted on Tuesday, Mrs Foster said "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."

Executive's notes

The new security 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.

Image copyright ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP

It is understood others involved in the meeting also included senior civil servant Andrew McCormick.

The Irish News reported that according to a translation, the pandemic and the strong co-operation between China and Northern Ireland were discussed.

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.

Image caption Michelle O'Neill said she supports the 'one country, two systems' international agreement

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken also called on Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill to clarify their positions.

"They could also add to the calls for the Chinese Communist Party to stop oppressing the Uighur people, although the impression they both now give is that the Executive Office is fully in the thrall of China," he said.

In a statement the Executive Office said: "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."

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.

NI-China relations

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

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