Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has sought to dispel concerns from European business groups over what they characterised as the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and rule of law – while at the same time calling on the EU to keep its hands off of the city’s internal affairs. In an online dialogue with more than 20 business chambers based in Europe and Hong Kong on Friday, Lam laid out the basis for continued bilateral ties between the EU and the city, calling for “mutual respect and non-interference into each other’s matters”. The business chambers challenged Lam over the Beijing-imposed national security law , saying it had violated human rights, undermined the city’s much-vaunted legal system and tested EU-Hong Kong relations. They also voiced concerns that companies’ CEOs could get into trouble under the law for criticising the Hong Kong government and its officials, a fear Lam sought to assuage. “I have to challenge that statement,” Lam said. “Those strengths and fundamentals of Hong Kong are still there: the freedoms, the rights enjoyed by individuals, the independence of judiciary, the transparency of the legal system, the accessibility to legal aid.” “CEOs can criticise the government and officials, which is freedom of speech,” she added. The real problem, Lam maintained, was the protest movement that sprang up following the introduction of her ill-fated extradition bill, which she floated in 2019 only to withdraw it months later after it triggered citywide unrest, street violence, and a wave of anti-government and anti-mainland sentiment. In June of the following year, Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong, banning in broad terms secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries or external elements. Carrie Lam vows to introduce amendments combating doxxing, fake news The EU has said the national security law was a matter of grave concern and did not conform with China’s international commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 or Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Other countries, such as the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, have also accused the law of trampling on Hong Kong’s unique freedoms, with Washington even levying sanctions on local and mainland officials over the legislation. The European business chambers, meanwhile, worried aloud that the rights that had made Hong Kong successful, particularly freedom of speech, were being curtailed. But Lam maintained that the city’s enforcement of the security law “is legal, is proper and transparent”. Sweeping new framework brings national security law into Hong Kong schools “I would challenge people who complain their rights of freedom have been compromised, give me concrete evidence of what sort of freedoms have been compromised,” she continued. “You just have to read the daily newspapers in Hong Kong, whether it is in Chinese or SCMP [ South China Morning Post ], there is freedom of expression every day attacking the government, criticising the mainland China or even criticising the president,” she said. Responding to concerns that public gatherings such as protests and marches had been blocked over the past year, Lam said it was necessary because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Once that is over, if people want to apply to have a public event, they can do it, the police will just issue a no-objection letter and they can go onto the streets again to express their political views and discontent about the government,” she said. Organised by Hong Kong’s economic and trade office in Berlin, Friday’s dialogue aimed to encourage European investment in the city, and was also attended by three ministers – Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing and Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Christopher Hui Ching-yu. Some participating groups, such as the Belgium-Hong Kong Society and the Netherlands-Hong Kong Business Association, asked about the city’s continued relevance and competitiveness in light of the development of the Greater Bay Area – Beijing’s ambitious plan to integrate Hong Kong, Macau and nine mainland cities into an economic engine with a total population of 72 million. Commerce secretary Yau said the city would serve as a gateway both for mainland companies to go abroad and for overseas companies to get into China. The city’s strengths in such areas as financial and professional services would differentiate it from other mainland cities, he added.