Human rights leaders are taking strong exception to the Biden administration’s decision to invite a member of the Hong Kong government to attend an economic summit later this month. Several members of Congress had asked the State Department to bar Hong Kong from participating over its continued role in following Beijing’s orders to crack down on pro-democracy protests and religious freedom.
Hong Kong’s financial secretary, Paul Chan, will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation trade summit, which is set to take place Nov. 15-17 in San Francisco. The Hong Kong government announced Tuesday that it would attend, and media reports soon emerged that Chan would participate instead of John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive. Lee is under heavy U.S. sanctions, along with 10 other Hong Kong and Chinese officials.
In a previous role as Hong Kong’s secretary of security, Lee worked with the Chinese Communist Party to launch a violent 2019 crackdown against pro-democracy protesters. Handpicked by officials in Beijing for the chief executive position, Lee has also carried out a strict interpretation of Hong Kong’s national security law, which has been used to prosecute pro-democracy leaders, as well as Catholic bishops who have backed the protests.
Under Beijing’s orders, Lee also placed large bounties on eight pro-democracy Hong Kong citizens who fled the territory during the crackdown and now live in the United States, Britain, and Australia. After leaving Hong Kong in recent years, many activists have continued to condemn the CCP’s attempts to stamp out the city’s freedom and autonomy.
The decision to invite Chan was intended to quell a controversy over whether Lee would participate after a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, including Sens. Marco Rubio and Jeff Merkley and Reps. Chris Smith and Jim McGovern, urged the State Department to bar Lee from attending.
In July, the Washington Post reported that the White House had decided not to include Lee at the summit and described the move as “the latest test of President Biden’s bid to reset relations with China,” citing U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
The snub of Lee, coming in the middle of efforts to ease tensions between the two powers, had potential ramifications for the administration. It could have prompted Chinese President Xi Jinping to skip the summit, where a meeting with Biden is tentatively scheduled. The decision to include Chan comes after a high-profile Washington visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi over the weekend in which both sides agreed to try to tamp down hostilities.
A State Department spokesperson told RealClearPolitics that the Hong Kong officials selected Chan to represent the territory after the State Department sent an invite to its government.
“We welcome his participation,” the spokesperson said., noting that U.S. officials have been “working towards having appropriate participation of all APEC member economies.”
“We are looking forward to continuing to work with APEC member economies on promoting free, fair, and open trade and investment, and advancing inclusive and sustainable growth,” the spokesperson said, noting that all participation in APEC “will be in accordance with U.S. law and regulations, including with respect to sanctions.”
Members of the extended Hong Kong community in America are not mollified, however, arguing that Hong Kong no longer has autonomy in running the territory and is simply an agent of Beijing.
“While we are pleased that John Lee will not be attending APEC in the United States, we are disappointed that the Hong Kong government received an invite,” Frances Hui, policy and advocacy coordinator for the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, said in a statement. “It is time to go further and deny Hong Kong its own separate place at the political table.”
“If ‘one country, two systems’ is now dead, then China should not have two bites of the same apple,” Hui added.
Smith and other top China critics in Congress have repeatedly condemned the government’s use of the national security law to prosecute Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong entrepreneur and media titan whose Apple Daily newspaper was known for criticizing the Chinese government until it was shut down after a police raid in 2021. Lai is serving a five-year prison sentence and previously served 20 months for unauthorized assemblies. Wong Wai-Keung, Lai’s fellow media executive, was found guilty of fraud and jailed for 21 months.
Others prosecuted include Cardinal Joseph Zen, the highest-ranking Catholic bishop in Hong Kong, and Joshua Wong Chi-Fung, the secretary-general of the pro-democracy party Demosisto until it was forced to disband after the implementation of the national security law.
Frank Wolf, a longtime human rights champion who served in Congress for more than three decades, issued a blunt reaction to Hong Kong’s inclusion at APEC.
“Many people are in jail in Hong Kong,” Wolf, who serves on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, told RealClearPolitics. “Jimmy Lai is in jail. They charged Cardinal Zen. They are controlled by the Chinese government that is committing genocide [against the Uyghurs]. The world needs to wake up.”
Human rights leaders have also criticized the decision by at least two dozen U.S. financial firms, including Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan, Citigroup, Golden Sachs, and Bank of America, to attend a financial summit in Hong Kong Nov. 6-7. Lee is set to headline the meeting.
“What will it take for the U.S. and other pro-democracy states to recognize the harm in visiting and welcoming a regime that disrespects human rights and disregards the rule of law?” Hui said. “The U.S. government should leverage the tools at their disposal to protect freedom at home and abroad.”
Human rights groups are pressing Congress to pass the Hong Kong Business Integrity and Transparency Act. The measure would require U.S. businesses to disclose when the Hong Kong government requests customer data that content be taken down from social media sites or other public forums or attempts to seek assistance in its targeting of political dissidents.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.