Resolving Hong Kong conundrum key to US-China summit at Apec

November 07, 2023 09:56
Photo: Reuters

After months of intense diplomacy, the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, announced Oct. 31 that President Joe Biden will meet with President Xi Jinping of China in November, when the Chinese leader is expected to visit San Francisco to take part in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum.

The next day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that the two countries had “agreed to work together for a meeting between the two heads of state,” adding that there was still work to be done.

Neither spokesperson mentioned Hong Kong, although a Biden-Xi summit was inconceivable without an understanding on the treatment to be accorded by Washington to the city’s chief executive, John Lee, who as leader of an Apec member was entitled to attend the San Francisco meeting but who, as someone sanctioned by Washington, was barred from entering the United States.

“With a part of his own country excluded, how could Xi come to the United States?” a leading American Sinologist asked rhetorically, alluding to the American desire to bar Lee but welcome Xi.

Besides, arguably, what Lee did in 2020 after China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong when he was the city’s secretary for security was to carry out orders from Beijing that ultimately emanated from Xi. So, ironically, the United States penalized an official who followed orders while wooing the boss who issued those orders.

Within the United States Congress, there were many who felt that since Lee had been sanctioned, he should not be invited while both China and Hong Kong insisted on his right to attend.

How could this conundrum be resolved? Without a resolution satisfactory to all three parties, there could be no United States-China summit in San Francisco. Xi simply wouldn’t attend.

Last February, Wendy Sherman, then deputy secretary of state informed Congress in writing that the United States intended to invite Lee.

In June, four United States legislators – two Republicans and two Democrats –wrote a letter urging the State Department to bar the Hong Kong leader, calling him a “human rights abuser.”

Then, on June 13, the State Department, in an about-turn, informed Congress that the Sherman response was “incorrect” and had been “inadvertently transmitted to Congress.” Instead, the department said, no decision had been made.

In the following months, the impression grew that Lee would be barred while a lesser Hong Kong official might 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 visitors to Beijing, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, climate envoy John Kerry and a slew of other senior officials. There was also a bipartisan delegation from the U.S. Senate led by majority leader Charles Schumer.

Surprisingly, Xi met personally with many of these visitors. These meetings were seen as signs of Xi’s interest in improved relations with the United States and raised 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 all loose ends before the White House’s announcement on Oct. 31.

So, how was the Hong Kong issue resolved?

Hours before Jean-Pierre’s press briefing, the Hong Kong government announced that it had received an invitation from Washington to attend the Apec meeting in San Francisco. It also said that due to “scheduling issues,” Chief Executive Lee would not attend and Hong Kong would instead be represented by Financial Secretary Paul Chan.

Thus the White House announcement was made after Hong Kong’s promise that Lee would not attend. In this way, China and Hong Kong’s demand for an invitation were met and so was the American insistence that Lee would not be issued a visa. Face was saved on all sides.

For Hong Kong, the compromise means that no precedent has been created for excluding its leader from future summits of Apec 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 nonproliferation are being held. Outcomes are not assured but talking is much more likely to result in better understanding than not talking.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.