Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
After months of intense diplomacy, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announced on Oct. 31 that U.S. President Joe Biden will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping when the Chinese leader is expected to visit San Francisco to take part in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum later this month. And while Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin warned the next day that there was still work to be done, he did say that the two countries had “agreed to work together for a meeting between the two heads of state.”
Neither spokesperson mentioned the issue of Hong Kong. But a Biden-Xi summit would have been inconceivable if there were still concerns about the long-simmering controversy around Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, and whether he’d be allowed to attend the forum.
As the leader of an APEC member, Mr. Lee is entitled to represent Hong Kong at the event. But in 2020, as Hong Kong’s then-Secretary for security, he was sanctioned by Washington after Hong Kong implemented the Beijing-drafted national security law, which bypassed the Hong Kong legislature; Mr. Lee is barred from entering the United States as a result. Many in U.S. Congress have made clear that Mr. Lee should not be invited and that his sanctions should not be waived.
Officials in both China and Hong Kong, meanwhile, insisted on his right to attend. After all, it can be argued that Mr. Lee was only carrying out orders from Beijing that ultimately emanated from Mr. Xi. It seems ironic, then, that the United States would penalize an official who followed his boss’s wishes, while wooing the boss himself.
So without a resolution satisfactory to Washington, Beijing and Hong Kong, there could be no United States-China summit in San Francisco. Mr. Xi simply wouldn’t have attended.
There have been many twists in this story in recent months. In February, then deputy-secretary of state Wendy Sherman informed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in writing that the United States intended to invite Mr. Lee to APEC. In response, four U.S. legislators – two Republicans and two Democrats – wrote a letter in June urging the State Department to bar the Hong Kong leader, calling him a “human rights abuser,” and the following week, the State Department made an about-face, informing Congress that Ms. Sherman’s statement was “incorrect” and had been “inadvertently transmitted to Congress.” Instead, the department said, no decision had been made.
Eventually, the impression grew that Mr. Lee would be barred, though a lesser Hong Kong official would be acceptable. Ever since Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing in June, the Biden administration had attempted to lower tensions with China, sending a stream of high-profile visitors to Beijing, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, climate envoy John Kerry and a slew of other senior officials. Last month, a bipartisan congressional delegation led by Senate majority leader Charles Schumer travelled to China.
Surprisingly, Mr. Xi met personally with many of these visitors. These meetings were seen as signs of his interest in improved relations with the United States, raising hopes in Washington of a Biden-Xi summit. Both sides, it seemed, wanted to stop the downward spiral in their relationship. Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Washington in late October was a key diplomatic mission to tie up remaining loose ends before the White House’s announcement on Oct. 31.
And in the end, the Hong Kong issue was resolved. According to a spokesperson for the Hong Kong government, Mr. Lee received a personal invitation from Washington to attend the APEC meeting, but due to “scheduling issues,” Mr. Lee would not attend, and Hong Kong would instead be represented by financial secretary Paul Chan. In this way, China and Hong Kong’s demand for an invitation were met, as was Congress’s insistence that Mr. Lee would not have his sanctions waived. Face was saved on all sides.
For Hong Kong, the compromise means that no precedent has been set for excluding its leader from future APEC summits or other international bodies of which the city is a member. For the rest of the world, it means that the leaders of China and the United States will get to discuss tough issues, some of which could lead to war. Already, preliminary talks on arms control and non-proliferation are being held.
Outcomes are not assured. But talking is much more likely to result in better understanding than the alternative.