The US government is considering waiving sanctions on Hong Kong SAR Chief Executive John Lee in order to allow him to enter the US and attend this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in San Francisco. Earlier this year in a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Wendy Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State, stated that the US plans to invite Lee to the upcoming APEC meeting in November. In early June, a group of lawmakers including Marco Rubio, Jeff Merkeley, Jim McGovern, and Chris Smith wrote to the State Department urging Lee, who has been sanctioned by the US since 2020 for his role in imposing the draconian National Security Law, to be barred from the meeting. The State Department has since amended the earlier statement, declaring that the guest list is yet to be finalized and will comply with US laws and sanctions. However, the amended statement still does not explicitly indicate whether the invitation of John Lee is still under consideration or not. In late June, a coalition of 52 Hong Kong diasporic organizations and allies sent President Biden a letter demanding a clear statement that the Biden Administration will prohibit Lee’s participation.
Inviting John Lee to the APEC meeting effectively renders sanctions meaningless and suggests that Hong Kong is a separate entity from China, contradicting the US’ revocation of Hong Kong’s special status back in 2020. Echoing the sentiments expressed by the aforementioned group of lawmakers, the invitation also signals to human rights abusers around the world that their actions will not be met with meaningful, lasting consequences and can be overlooked in certain circumstances, especially if they bear substantial economic influence. An exemption for Lee would set a poor precedent and severely undermine confidence in the US’ global commitment to human rights and freedom. This current wavering indicates some reticence on the part of US officials about enforcing sanctions and rulings consistently, even in the face of demands from human rights groups that the U.S. government consider other ways to facilitate regional dialogues without giving oppressors disproportionate representation.