China sharply criticised Liz Truss after the Foreign Secretary spoke out in defence of political freedoms in Hong Kong.
The rebuke came shortly after Ms Truss gave an interview to The Telegraph in which she separately argued the UK should take a tougher line on Beijing.
Ms Truss was moved to comment after dozens of opposition councillors were removed from their posts for alleged insufficient loyalty to the city.
The councillors – who deal with local issues and hold the only political office in Hong Kong wholly directly elected by residents – have since last month had to “sincerely” pledge their loyalty in a drive to purge “unpatriotic” elements.
Hundreds have resigned, while others have been pushed out for what authorities deemed invalid oaths.
“It is deeply concerning that 55 District Councillors have been disqualified and over 250 pressured to resign for political reasons – the first time that such action has been taken against democratically elected District Councillors,” Ms Truss said in a statement last week.
“This comes as trade unions, interest groups and NGOs have been forced to disband.”
Ms Truss called on the Hong Kong government to “uphold freedom of speech and allow the public a genuine choice of political representatives”.
The Chinese embassy in London at the weekend said her remarks were “irresponsible” and accused her of interfering in China’s internal affairs.
China’s foreign ministry earlier claimed Britain and the US – which has also criticized the disqualifications – never “really cared about democracy and freedom in Hong Kong”.
“Facts speak louder than words,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
Since the introduction of the “National Security Law”, which outlaws anything Beijing deems to be subversive, "the violent and chaotic situation in Hong Kong has been completely reversed”, he said.
“The lawful rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people have been better protected, and Hong Kong's unique strengths and development potential have been fully demonstrated.”
Strained relations between UK and China
In her interview with The Telegraph on Saturday, Ms Truss warned against the UK becoming reliant on China, saying that Beijing should play no part in nuclear plants or Britain’s 5G network.
She indicated that Beijing-controlled companies should be excluded from contracts to build the Sizewell C nuclear power station, saying joint work on sensitive projects should be done only with nations that have a “bond of trust” with the UK.
As well as Hong Kong, a host of other issues have strained relations between Britain and China, including claims of spying and the persecution of Uyghur muslims in Xinjiang province.
After Britain and other countries sanctioned Chinese officials over rights abuses in Xinjiang, Beijing retaliated by imposing sanctions on nine Britons, including MPs. Beijing said the individuals, including Conservative MPs Iain Duncan Smith and Tom Tugendhat, who have spoken out against China’s treatment of Uyghurs, had spread “lies and disinformation”.
Last month, Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle barred China’s ambassador to Britain from parliament over the sanctions. The Chinese embassy in London called it a “despicable and cowardly action”.
Relations have also soured over British claims of Chinese cyber attacks, and the revoking of the TV licence of the Chinese state broadcaster by Ofcom.
The British government also caused fury in Beijing last year when it banned Huawei from its 5G network over spying fears.
Last week, however, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that while Britain will keep a “cautious” approach in its dealings with China, it would not “pitchfork away” Chinese investment.
“China is a gigantic part of our economic life and will be for a long time — for our lifetime,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg.