US Democratic and Republican lawmakers have urged Washington not to invite Hong Kong’s sanctioned leader John Lee to an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco in November, describing him as a “human rights abuser.”

Hong Kong joined the economic grouping in 1991 but Lee has been subject to US Treasury Department sanctions since 2020. US sanctioned individuals are not allowed to enter the states unless granted a waiver by the government.

us lawmaker marco rubio
US senator Marco Rubio and other three lawmakers have urged US not to invite Hong Kong’s John Lee to APEC. Photos: Wikicommons.

Washington slapped sanctions on 11 Hong Kong officials in August 2020, including the then-leader Carrie Lam, then-police chief Chris Tang and John Lee – who was security chief at the time – after Beijing imposed the national security law on the city. The US deemed it “draconian” and said it was “undermining the rule of law.”

“Because of the Hong Kong government’s violent suppression of peaceful protestors in 2019, inviting Chief Executive Lee to attend the APEC meeting sends a terrible signal to human rights violators worldwide, ” Republican Senator Marco Rubio and the other lawmakers said in a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday.

Rubio in June 2019 introduced in the Senate the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which was signed into law the same year. It requires Washington to impose sanctions against Hong Kong and mainland China officials who have violated human rights, and to conduct an annual review to determine whether to change Hong Kong’s favourable trade status.

US state secretary Antony Blinken
US state secretary Antony Blinken. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Other lawmakers criticising the intention to invite Lee include Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, Democratic Representative Jim McGovern and Republican Representative Chris Smith.

The letter cited a written response by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in February to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which confirmed that ” [t]he United States plans to invite Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee to attend APEC. As the host, we believe it is important to foster regional economic dialogue” and for US and China to “work together to maintain global macro-economic stability.”

‘Human rights abuser’

The lawmakers criticised the decision to invite what they called “a sanctioned human rights abuser” and said it would give China “disproportional representation” at APEC.

“Inviting Chief Executive Lee to APEC would be tantamount to recognizing Hong Kong a separate economy from the PRC, which in fact, and according to US law, it is not, ” the lawmakers said in the letter.

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In May 2020, the US declared that it no longer considers Hong Kong autonomous from China, following Beijing’s announcement that it would draft the national security law.

“The United States looks forward to hosting APEC this year to expand and deepen economic ties within APEC for the benefit of the American people and our partners” a State Department spokesperson told HKFP last week. “Invitations for APEC Economic Leaders’ Week have not been finalized at this time. The United States will diligently work towards participation of all delegations in APEC events in accordance with U.S. laws and regulations, and on the basis of the spirit and principles of APEC.”

John Lee
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee attends a press conference on May 2, 2023 about the proposed amendments to the District Councils. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

When asked by HKFP last Tuesday whether he would go to the APEC forum in November, Lee did not answer directly.

“APEC is an international organisation. It doesn’t belong to any country or economy. According to APEC rules and conventions, the organiser has the responsibility to invite members to attend. Hong Kong, China has been a member of APEC, and has been taking part in APEC conferences in accordance with APEC rules and conventions, ” Lee said, “it is up to the organiser to act in accordance with these conventions.”

In response to the US lawmakers, a spokesperson for his office told HKFP on Thursday: “It is a matter of course for government officials of any country to safeguard the national security of their own country. Mr Lee is fully committed to fulfilling his obligation and responsibility in maintaining national security.”

In response, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Wang Wenbin told the press on Thursday: “China believes that the US will fulfill its commitments to ensure that all APEC members, including Hong Kong, China, attend the meeting smoothly.”

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.