Lee, then Hong Kong’s security chief, was elevated last year to chief executive, handpicked by Beijing to continue what critics say is a broader campaign of repression in the once-semiautonomous city. He has helped execute Beijing’s reimagining of the territory, where institutions from schools to the media now operate under new red lines that have eroded freedoms.
The snub by the United States, which in November will host the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in San Francisco, comes in the midst of a tenuous thaw in the two powers’ frosty bilateral relationship. It could, some analysts say, induce Chinese President Xi Jinping to skip the APEC summit — where a meeting with Biden has been anticipated.
Others, however, say they expect Xi will attend, as China, whose economic fortunes have dimmed considerably, will want to project leadership in a bid to restore global investor confidence and show Xi’s domestic audience that he is effectively managing the country’s ties with the United States.
The sanction on Lee does not prevent Hong Kong’s participation in APEC, allowing for another senior representative to attend instead, U.S. officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment on the matter, except to say: “We’re looking forward to the participation of all APEC member delegations in accordance with U.S. laws and regulations.”
Asked for comment, Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said: “We express our strong opposition” to Lee’s exclusion. “This violates APEC rules,” Liu said, “and breaks the commitments made by the U.S.”
The Hong Kong chief executive’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was sanctioned last year after ordering the invasion of Ukraine and whose travel to the United States would generally be barred unless a waiver was obtained, also will be excluded from the APEC summit, officials said. Putin faces an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court in connection with alleged war crimes in Ukraine, and also will not attend a summit of major developing nations in South Africa next month, by mutual agreement with Johannesburg.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing flared in the winter, after the Biden administration shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States. But as fallout from the incident receded, several senior U.S. officials in recent weeks have made visits to China, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Biden’s climate envoy John F. Kerry.
Beijing had indicated as recently as June that it expected the United States, as the summit’s host, to invite Lee. Hong Kong has been a member of APEC since 1991, six years before Britain handed the territory back to China. Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said then that Washington had “undertaken to fulfill its obligation, follow relevant rules and procedures of APEC, and facilitate the participation of all representatives.”
Disclosure of the administration’s decision will “generate political pressure for Xi Jinping to reconsider going, even if U.S.-China relations would benefit from his meeting President Biden,” said Scott Kennedy, senior adviser and expert on the Chinese economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, he conceded, Xi may determine that with international confidence in China’s economy sinking, APEC may be too important to skip.
“It may come down to them swallowing this [slight] because it’s so important, but it makes it a larger, more bitter pill to swallow,” Kennedy said, on the sidelines of a University of California at San Diego “China forum,” a conference examining U.S.-China relations.
Although Hong Kong could send a substitute, Xi’s reaction to Lee’s exclusion could end up disrupting Washington’s aims for APEC, said Kurt Tong, who from 2016 to 2019 was the top U.S. diplomat in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was granted membership in APEC with the support of the United States and others because it was seen as a “useful voice” in favor of free trade and open markets, said Tong, now a partner at The Asia Group, a Washington-based advisory firm.
“Rather than picking a fight with China on this purely symbolic issue,” Tong said, “the administration should lay out a set of expectations, that Hong Kong must participate from the perspective of what’s good for the Hong Kong economy and the regional economy, and speak with a voice of autonomy rather than perform as a rhetorical puppet of the People’s Republic of China.”
The case has underscored the challenges Washington faces in imposing sanctions on individuals working for governments with which the United States must engage, said Peter Harrell, a nonresident fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Historically, we’ve tended to sanction folks we didn’t have to deal with directly” because they represented governments that were isolated internationally, said Harrell, a former senior White House official in the Biden administration handling sanction policy.
“When we sanction officials in big countries that have global reach, it creates a dilemma of how to signal disapproval of their acts and hold them accountable while confronting the reality that this may be a decision-maker you have to deal with,” he said. “The challenge here is when you’re dealing with foreign officials who have done truly atrocious things.”
U.S. people and entities, from banks to airlines to government officials, generally are barred from interacting with sanctioned individuals on the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals list. That makes entry into the United States difficult unless a waiver is granted.
The news agency Reuters reported in June that a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the State Department to bar Lee from attending the summit, citing a written acknowledgment from the department’s deputy secretary, Wendy Sherman, that it was planning to invite him “to foster regional economic dialogue.”
A week later, Reuters reported, the State Department walked back Sherman’s statement, saying “an incorrect version of this answer was inadvertently transmitted to Congress.”
Biden has been criticized by some Republican lawmakers who have accused his administration of pulling punches on China in an effort to pursue engagement. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Select Committee on China, said last week that “it’s been over two years since a single Hong Kong or [People’s Republic of China] official was sanctioned for the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
Instead, he said, administration officials are chasing Chinese diplomats around the world, “desperately seeking meetings like ardent suitors.”
He accused the administration of delaying the imposition of tougher export controls aimed at preventing U.S. technology from aiding China’s military modernization. “Clearly,” Gallagher said, “the push for high-level engagement has come at the cost of defending ourselves.”
A person familiar with the administration’s thinking said he disputed the notion that Biden officials are slow-rolling policy moves to curry favor with Beijing, and cited the Lee decision as an example.
“It’s really important to want to engage in stiff competition, managed responsibly,” the person said. “But we’re not going to stop doing the things we need to do to protect ourselves and stand up for the values we care about.”
Mahtani reported from Singapore
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