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Opinion | APEC forum: US exclusion of John Lee a violation of rules-based order

By Grenville Cross

As the US president, Joe Biden, has repeatedly shown, he is no friend of Hong Kong. Indeed, this is one of the few things he has in common with his predecessor, Donald Trump. Whereas Trump, in 2020, announced that the city would "never succeed" under Chinese rule and its markets would "go to hell", Biden followed this up with his notorious "Hong Kong Business Advisory", in 2021, which sought to frighten US businesses away from Hong Kong.

Although the then secretary for security, John Lee Ka-chiu, played a significant role in helping Hong Kong survive the foreign-inspired insurrection which threatened to destroy the "one country, two systems" governing policy in 2019, the US, for no good reason, imposed iniquitous sanctions on him and 10 other Chinese officials who deployed the national security legislation to save the city from chaos.

The US sanctions, however, have not deterred Lee, now the chief executive, from doing his patriotic duty, and Washington's hostility toward the city has not only endured, but sought new outlets.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), a grouping of regional economies, was created in 1989; Hong Kong (as "Hong Kong, China") – together with the People's Republic of China – joined in 1991, and has played an active role in its affairs ever since. In its mission statement (2021), APEC said its "primary goal is to support sustainable economic growth and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region".

This is clearly laudable, and APEC is committed to "championing free and open trade and investment, promoting and accelerating regional economic integration, encouraging economic and technical cooperation, enhancing human security, and facilitating a favorable and sustainable business environment". Through various initiatives, APEC, which now has 21 members, seeks to turn its policy objectives into reality, and to achieve tangible benefits through agreements.

It is, therefore, shocking that the US has decided to sabotage this economic grouping by excluding John Lee, for political reasons, from the APEC Leaders Meeting 2023, scheduled for November, in San Francisco. The Biden Administration, having originally planned to waive the sanctions and invite Lee, has now capitulated to political pressure from anti-China forces in the US Congress.

In June, Wendy Sherman, the then deputy of the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said the US was planning to invite Lee to the APEC meeting "to foster regional economic dialogue". Once, however, they heard of this, four congressional Sinophobes mobilized, led by Senator Marco Rubio. Apart from his deplorable advocacy of sanctions for Hong Kong prosecutors in 2022, Rubio is perhaps best remembered in Hong Kong for his 2018 publicity stunt, when he (unsuccessfully) nominated three convicted felons, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang, for the Nobel Peace Prize, without telling the award committee in Oslo of their involvement in an unlawful assembly with violence, that left 10 people injured.

On June 7, after they heard Lee was to be invited to San Francisco, Rubio and his cronies wrote to Blinken, asking him to bar Lee as his presence would send "a dreadful signal to human rights violators worldwide". This, however, was just a smokescreen, and the rest of their letter showed that what they really intended was to harm Hong Kong yet again, while also poking Beijing in the eye.

They told Blinken that, if Lee were invited, it "would be tantamount to recognizing Hong Kong as a separate economy from the PRC, when in fact, and according to US law, it is not". On the back of this fallacy, the letter-writers urged Blinken to avoid "any action that would give the PRC disproportionate representation at APEC, including preventing Chief Executive Lee from entering the US".

Although not immediately apparent, Rubio, and his fellow letter-writer, Senator Jeff Merkley, were pursuing a wider strategy, designed to undermine Hong Kong. Several weeks later, on July 13, this became clearer, when the pair sponsored the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO) Certification Act, which, if enacted, will require Biden to "remove the extension of certain privileges, exemptions and immunities" to the three Hong Kong trade offices in the US. The bill will now go to the full Senate for a vote, and Rubio hopes to damage Hong Kong's economy by closing its US trade offices. His plan, however, was not only cooked up by himself and Merkley.

The closure of Hong Kong's 14 trade offices around the world is a policy objective of Hong Kong Watch, the UK-based anti-China propaganda outfit run by the serial fantasist, Benedict Rogers. Sometimes directly but also through its US affiliate, the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), Hong Kong Watch has been vigorously lobbying Rubio and his cronies, seeking to close Hong Kong's three trade offices in the US. It recently called on all the host countries "to terminate HKETO's privileges and immunities where these exist, and cease from approving their new offices opening", and Rubio and Merkley are shamelessly helping Rogers with his dirty work.

The deployment, moreover, of the HKDC by Hong Kong Watch for frontline congressional lobbying should surprise nobody, as it is chaired by the criminal fugitive, Brian Leung Kai-ping, who, having helped trash the Legislative Council on July 1, 2019, fled to the US, where he was red-carpeted by the likes of Rubio and Merkley. The HKDC's advisors include Leung's fellow desperados, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Ted Hui Chi-fung, both recently accused of violating China's national security.

Once, therefore, the US announced that Lee would not be invited, Hong Kong Watch said the decision was "welcome", although it went much further than that. It claimed that the Hong Kong government was "no longer autonomous", and this meant that "the US and like-minded countries should consider whether it deserves a seat at future bilateral and multilateral summits and negotiations". In other words, Hong Kong Watch wants to see Hong Kong expelled from APEC altogether, and Rubio and Merkley are complicit in its squalid plot, from which the city's ordinary working people would suffer the most. China, therefore, must do whatever it can to protect the city's interests from these malign individuals.

It is unfortunate that the Biden Administration has allowed itself to be manipulated by the likes of Rubio, Merkley and Rogers, but it long ago abandoned its moral compass. APEC, however, is not the plaything of the US, and Biden's duty, as this year's host, is not to engage in gutter politics, but to uphold APEC's principles. As the Chinese foreign ministry's spokesperson, Mao Ning, explained, on July 28, there is an obligation on APEC host countries to "ensure the smooth participation of the representatives of all members in APEC meetings", and the US should "stop undermining the solidarity and cooperation of APEC".

By excluding Lee, moreover, the US has deliberately violated APEC's governing code, and Biden must be called out accordingly. In 2016, APEC adopted its "Guidelines for Hosting APEC Meetings" describing the practices that hosts are expected to observe. In Guideline 2.4, it is stated unequivocally that "It is up to each member to decide whom to include in its member delegation", and it is this that Biden has chosen to flout. The US has grossly overstepped the mark by seeking to decide who can join the Hong Kong delegation.

Although the US constantly lectures others about the need to observe its "rules-based order", it is prepared to violate APEC's rules whenever it wants. This is intolerable hypocrisy, and APEC's members must take a stand. After all, while John Lee is the victim of America's rule-breaking this year, there is no way of telling – if it gets away with it – who will be targeted next time.

Quite apart from insulting Hong Kong, Biden has disrespected Beijing, and APEC, as an economic entity, cannot allow its processes to be abused like this. Its members, therefore, should unite in defense of their values, and insist that APEC's rules are observed. If Biden refuses to invite Lee, he will have made a mockery of APEC, and its members must consider whether they should still participate in a meeting the host has so egregiously devalued.

Indeed, given the US contempt for APEC's values and its bullying of Hong Kong, one of its longest-standing members, nobody could blame Chinese President Xi Jinping and John Lee if they decided their delegations should boycott the meeting in San Francisco altogether. After all, nobody wants to participate in a debased gathering, and it makes sense to await the return of normality. This will be achieved in 2024, when the APEC forum will be held in Peru, a host that, unlike the US, can be trusted to uphold the organization's principles.


Grenville Cross is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The article was first published in China Daily.


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