File photo: People wearing face masks walk on the street during the COVID-19 pandemic in Hong Kong, China, 28 December 2022; Credit: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) - On Friday 26 May 2023, Hong Kong authorities condemned a British government call for the removal of a China-imposed national security law that the United Kingdom said had been used to persecute, "silence and discredit" pro-democracy opposition figures.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly wrote in his government's latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong that he had highlighted at a United Nations hearing in February 2023 how Hong Kong authorities had used the security law to crack down on opposition figures, many of whom are in jail or have been forced into exile.

Cleverly called on Beijing to implement recommendations made in an independent UN Human Rights Council report in July 2022, including "removing the National Security Law" that Beijing imposed on the former British colony in 2020.

Hong Kong authorities said in a statement that they "vehemently refuted, strongly disapproved and firmly rejected the slandering remarks and ill-intentioned political attacks".

A Hong Kong government spokesman said the UK should "stop interfering in Hong Kong matters, which are purely China's internal affairs".

The spokesman said Hong Kong's security law had brought stability after mass pro-democracy protests in 2019 and that while Hong Kong laws guaranteed certain individual rights, "such rights and freedoms are not absolute" when it comes to safeguarding national security.

The UK referred in its report to the erosion of Hong Kong's rule of law, including transferring "powers once vested in the judiciary" to Hong Kong's pro-China leader and the inability of those facing national security charges to challenge government decisions in the courts.

"We have stood with our partners in condemning the steady erosion of civil and political rights and Hong Kong's autonomy," Cleverly wrote in a foreword to the report.

Among those who have been persecuted, Cleverly referred to jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who faces a national security trial in September 2023, and said he had raised Lai's case with Chinese Vice President Han Zheng this month.

The 75-year-old Lai founded the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper that police raided and shut down in 2021.

The UK handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 under an agreement guaranteeing its freedoms for at least 50 years.

While relations between London and Beijing have been strained since Beijing imposed the national security law, a senior British official visited Hong Kong this month, the first such visit in five years.