Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has issued a mild rebuke to China for warning the Five Eyes intelligence alliance of "their eyes being poked and blinded".
The comments from China were made in response to a Five Eyes statement critical of a Chinese government resolution, which led to the disqualification of four pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong.
The joint statement, signed by New Zealand, said the new rule appeared to be "part of a concerted campaign to silence all critical voices", and called it a breach of China's commitment to grant Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and freedom of speech.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded by saying the Five Eyes partners - the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - "should face up to the reality" that the former British colony has been returned to China.
"No matter if they have five eyes or 10 eyes, if they dare to harm China's sovereignty, security and development interests, they should beware of their eyes being poked and blinded," he said.
This afternoon, Mahuta responded: "We are aware of the comments, and disagree with them."
She said New Zealand signed the Five Eyes statement - which New Zealand has previously refrained from doing - because "enough countries were expressing concern".
New Zealand and China agreed "on many things", and she hoped China would understand New Zealand's consistent position on values such as freedom of speech, a free media and democracy.
"We are deeply concerned by recent developments there, including China's passing of national security legislation for Hong Kong and recent arrests of, and disqualification of, elected Legislative Council lawmakers," Mahuta said.
"There's no comparison between the strength and the size of a country like China and New Zealand, but New Zealand has an independent foreign policy.
"We will continue to uphold and advocate for the values and principles that define who we are, but more importantly what we seek to achieve as a responsible member of the global community."
Waikato University Law Professor Alexander Gillespie said New Zealand faced a challenge in diplomatic positioning amid US-China tensions.
"Walking this fine line between China, which is our biggest trading partner right now, and our traditional allies and friends in the Five Eyes is going to be the most difficult task we've had in quite a long time in diplomacy," he told RNZ.
"We're going to get pressure from both sides. One side's going to want us to be quiet, and the other side's going to want to make sure we don't fall out of the pack."
Whether there would be China-NZ trade repercussions remained to be seen, he said.
"We're not at the forefront of the debate and we're not antagonising China to the same degree [as Australia], but it's possible we could get a warning in time to come, a soft warning."
Hong Kong, a city of 7.5 million people, was promised autonomy over local affairs for 50 years after its return to China in 1997.
Zhao said Hong Kong was an inalienable part of China and that public officials must "be loyal to the motherland. This is a basic political ethic in every country in the world, right?"
The four disqualified lawmakers were earlier barred from running for reelection because of their calls for foreign governments to impose sanctions on China and Hong Kong. They had remained in office because elections were postponed for one year.
Three other former pro-democracy lawmakers appeared in court in Hong Kong on Thursday, one day after they were arrested for disrupting the legislature during debate on a national anthem bill earlier this year.
The three were joined by supporters holding up signs with slogans outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts.
Eddie Chu, one of the three, said he was facing "prosecution from the dictatorship" because of their actions to try to block passage of the national anthem ordinance. The law criminalises insult and abuse of the anthem, the March of the Volunteers.
- With AP