Northern Ireland

Stormont remarks on Hong Kong law 'scandalous' says pro-democracy leader

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists Eddie Chu and Joshua Wong, and inset, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill with Belfast's Chinese Consul General, Madame Zhang Meifang
Hong Kong pro-democracy activists Eddie Chu and Joshua Wong, and inset, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill with Belfast's Chinese Consul General, Madame Zhang Meifang

A LEADING pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong has urged Stormont leaders to "clarify their stance and stand up for the liberal values that the world cherishes" amid claims the first and deputy first ministers endorsed China's draconian new security laws.

Joshua Wong urged the Northern Ireland government to clarify its position after Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill allegedly said they "understand and respect" Hong Kong's new legislation imposed by China.

Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy politician in Hong Kong, also described the reported remarks as "very disappointing" if they are found to be the case.

The ministers apparently gave the endorsement during a video call with consul general Madame Zhang Meifang, according to a translated report by the Chinese Consulate.

However when The Irish News reported the details of the meeting yesterday the initial report on the consulate's website was later changed to remove the controversial statement.

Amnesty International called on Stormont to "urgently publish its note of the meeting".

The Executive Office (TEO) did not initially deny the accuracy of the account, instead only confirming a "courtesy call" took place.

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But in an additional statement last night, it said the consulate's report did not reflect the ministers' stances nor their comments during the meeting.

Mrs Foster said her position on Hong Kong was the same as the UK government's and said she had been 'misrepresented'.

British 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.

DUP leader Mrs Foster posted on Twitter: "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."

Sinn Féin vice-president Ms O'Neill tweeted: "I made it very clear that I supported the 'One Country, Two Systems' international agreement."

China's new security laws imposed on Hong Kong have been internationally condemned.

This week a Hong Kong newspaper owner and other pro-democracy and media figures were arrested in the most high-profile use of the controversial legislation so far.

China has also been vilified for the internment of an estimated one million Uighur Muslims in so-called 're-education' camps.

Mr Wong said: "It will be unbelievably scandalous if it is really the case that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland have said that they 'understand and respect' Beijing's human rights abuses under its sweeping national security law."

He said the city has been "blanketed in Orwellian fear" since the law was imposed a month ago.

"Books were pulled from libraries. People carrying stickers with quotes from bibles or carrying blank placards were charged for breaching the security law. Activists were prosecuted for commemorating the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, for the first time in 31 years after the crackdown," he said.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Stormont has been liaising with Chinese authorities to secure protective equipment for health workers.

For years it has maintained relations with China, setting up a bureau in Beijing in 2014 to encourage trade, tourism and education links.

Mr Wong said it would be worrying if Stormont "chooses to turn a blind eye" in exchange for "more economic ties with China in business and education".

"Therefore, we hope the Northern Ireland government can clarify its stance and stand up for the liberal values that the world cherishes," he said.

Mr Chu said: "Elected leaders in democratic states should uphold freedom of expression as the fundamental and universal value.

"There is no way to 'understand and respect' a law which specifically takes away that right from the people."

Northern Ireland politicians also called for clarity.

SDLP MLA Colin McGrath, chair of the Executive Office committee, urged the department "in interest of transparency, (to) publish the note of the meeting".

Alliance MP Stephen Farry said engaging with China "should not compromise our values on human rights", while UUP leader Steve Aiken said the impression given was that "the Executive Office is fully in the thrall of China".

The Executive Office was asked whether the remarks were an accurate reflection of what happened, and whether Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill took the opportunity to raise any human rights concerns with China.

In its initial response, a spokeswoman said: "Ministers held a courtesy call with the Chinese Consul General as part of their regular communications on areas of interest to the executive."

An additional statement yesterday added: "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."