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Beijing has called on Washington to allow Hong Kong’s leader to attend a summit in the US following a report that he would be barred from entry after sanctions were imposed on him for his role in the crackdown on dissent in the territory.
John Lee, a former career police officer, was targeted by US Treasury sanctions in 2020 when he served as the city’s security minister because of his involvement in “coercing, arresting, detaining, or imprisoning individuals” during the crackdown.
As Hong Kong’s top official, he would be expected to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which is being held in San Francisco in November. “We strongly deplore and firmly reject [the move] and have lodged solemn representation [to the US],” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a press conference on Friday.
The US should “immediately correct its wrongdoings” and lift the “illegal and unreasonable” sanctions imposed on Lee, she added, urging Washington to stop “sabotaging the unity and co-operation” of Apec members.
Lee’s office said in a statement that the US was “obliged to fulfil its basic responsibilities as a host” and invite Lee to the Apec meeting “in his capacity of the leader of Hong Kong, China”.
The dispute over Lee’s attendance threatens to complicate US-China relations ahead of potential talks between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden at the November summit.
The two countries have made efforts to re-establish regular high-level dialogue in recent weeks, but the process has been disrupted by the recent disappearance of Qin Gang, China’s former foreign minister. Qin was replaced this week by Wang Yi, a veteran diplomat and his predecessor in the post.
China’s foreign affairs ministry last month called on the US to ensure that Lee, who was appointed by Beijing last year, can “attend the summit smoothly”. The former British colony has been an Apec member since 1991, and Lee attended last year’s meeting in Bangkok.
A US decision to block Lee’s attendance was first reported by the Washington Post, which cited anonymous US officials. The report said that Hong Kong would be allowed to send another senior representative. In a statement, the US state department said it looked forward to “welcoming officials from all 21 Apec economies”, but declined to comment on whether Lee would be invited.
Tam Yiu-chung, who was formerly Hong Kong’s delegate to the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress, said the US should “not interfere” in the city’s internal affairs.
“These petty moves are rather pointless when [the US is] looking to foster a more normalised relationship” with Beijing, said Tam, who has also been targeted by US sanctions.
This latest row comes as Hong Kong authorities have escalated a crackdown on political dissent in the wake of the 2019 protests and Beijing’s imposition the following year of a sweeping national security law.
The territory’s government sparked an outcry this month after it issued bounties totalling $1mn seeking the arrests of eight self-exiled pro-democracy activists. Lee branded the figures, who include ex-lawmakers and lawyers, as “street rats”.
But in a surprise ruling on Friday, Hong Kong’s high court rejected a government bid to ban a 2019 protest anthem that officials have described as “seditious”.
“Glory to Hong Kong” shot to the top of local download charts last month after authorities filed a court injunction that could have compelled tech companies such as Alphabet and Meta to block access to the song in the territory.
Google and Meta declined to comment on the ruling. Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Gloria Li and William Langley in Hong Kong