Exclusive-Lawmakers slam US intent to invite sanctioned Hong Kong leader for APEC

FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee speaks during the Global Financial Leaders Investment Summit in Hong Kong

By Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic and Republican U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday urged the State Department to bar Hong Kong's chief executive, who faces U.S. sanctions, from visiting San Francisco during November's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

The United States is set to host this year's gathering of leaders of APEC, of which Hong Kong is a member economy. But Hong Kong's top official John Lee was placed under U.S. sanctions in 2020 when he was the city's security secretary over his role in implementing what Washington deems a "draconian" Hong Kong national security law.

In its 2020 designation of Lee, the U.S. Treasury Department said he had been involved in the "coercing, arresting, detaining, or imprisoning" of people in the Chinese city who had protested against the law.

"We are dismayed to learn that the Biden Administration plans to waive the sanctions on Chief Executive Lee and allow him into the United States to attend the APEC meeting," Republican Senator Marco Rubio and the other lawmakers said in a copy of a letter seen by Reuters that was sent to the State Department.

The letter was co-signed by Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, Democratic Representative Jim McGovern and Republican Representative Chris Smith.

"Inviting a sanctioned human rights abuser is an affront to all those who have been persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Republic of China (PRC), and its proxies in Hong Kong," the lawmakers wrote.

The letter cited comments from Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who in a written response to questions following Feb. 9 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told senators that the department intended to welcome Lee to the U.S. for APEC.

"The 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 the United States and the PRC to work together to maintain global macro-economic stability," Sherman wrote, according to a transcript of her response to the committee.

"However, an invitation to APEC does not absolve individuals of their role in undermining Hong Kong's autonomy and eroding protected rights and freedoms in Hong Kong," Sherman said.

The State Department told Reuters that the United States looked forward to hosting APEC, but that the invitations for APEC Economic Leaders' Week "have not been finalized at this time."

U.S. persons or entities are generally barred from dealing with people on Washington's Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, making entry into the U.S. difficult unless a waiver is given. The State Department can also issue visa restrictions, but due to visa confidentiality does not normally disclose those who have been subject to the restrictions.

Lee told media in Hong Kong last month that the U.S. had an obligation to invite the city to the 21-member APEC leaders meeting.

"APEC is an international organization. It doesn't belong to any country or economy. According to APEC rules and conventions, the organizer has the responsibility to invite members to attend," Lee said, without saying whether he intended to travel to the meeting.

Frances Hui at the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation said on Wednesday allowing Lee to visit the U.S. would send the wrong signal to Chinese officials and rights abusers around the world.

“It sends the terrible message that committing abuses comes at little or no cost,” Hui said.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Don Durfee and Andrea Ricci)