Hong Kong leader John Lee has arrived at a regional economic summit in Bangkok in the first appearance by the city’s chief executive at an international event in nearly three years – as the Asian financial hub angles for a comeback.
Lee, a US-sanctioned official who has guided Hong Kong through a recent, significant easing of its Covid-19 controls, is expected to use the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting to pitch the city as open for business, following more than two years of stringent international border controls.
“We will walk the talk and tell Hong Kong’s good stories in order to attract enterprises and talents to the city for business and development,” Lee said after arriving in Bangkok on Thursday, referring to his plan to lead a Hong Kong business delegation in meetings with Thai counterparts following the summit.
But first, Lee will join Chinese leader Xi Jinping and representatives from 19 other economies on both sides of the Pacific for the two-day APEC leaders’ meeting in the Thai capital, which begins Friday and will focus on regional trade and integration, as well as addressing global economic threats like inflation and rising food costs.
Lee held a pull-aside meeting with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at Bangkok’s international airport after arriving Thursday afternoon. Lee was also at the airport to greet Xi on his arrival, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported.
For Lee, who took office in July, the summit offers a chance to try and win back the approval of the international business community after three years that have transformed the city. Prior to the pandemic, the former British colony was rocked by large-scale pro-democracy protests in 2019, which were followed by a sweeping Beijing-backed crackdown on civil society and opposition politicians.
Lee was sanctioned by the US in 2020 for his role in “restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong,” as part of the former US President Donald Trump administration’s response to Beijing’s imposition of restrictive national security legislation in the city. At the time, Lee was the city’s Secretary for Security. The city’s then Chief Executive Carrie Lam was also sanctioned.
While US President Joe Biden will not attend APEC, Lee will find himself in the company of Vice President Kamala Harris and other US officials.
But Lee’s focus will be economics not politics, as the Hong Kong government seeks to revive a flagging economy that’s only recently seen a significant easing of Covid-19 controls.
In September, city officials announced they would end a system of formal Covid-19 quarantine for international travelers that at one point required arrivals to spend as many as three weeks in a designated hotel at their own expense.
The changes followed considerable pressure from the Hong Kong business community and some public health officials to loosen restrictions amid a faltering economy, an outflow of foreigners and concerns that the financial hub, once known as “Asia’s World City,” was being left behind as the rest of the world moved on from the pandemic.
This marked a departure from policy in mainland China, which continues to mandate border quarantine and pursue a policy of stamping out all infections.
Hong Kong, instead, has sought to balance limiting the spread of the virus with opening up for international events, including earlier this month hosting a financial leaders’ summit and the Hong Kong Sevens, its biggest annual sporting event, which had been suspended since 2019 due to political unrest, and, later, Covid-19.
“We’re working on specific and dedicated plans to ensure major events and economic activities can be held smoothly, to open up Hong Kong, to bring a world of business back to Hong Kong as quickly and as safely as we can,” Lee said at a Hong Kong-based health summit last week, according to public broadcaster RTHK.
Lee will have bilateral meetings on the sidelines of APEC and also lead a delegation of more than 20 high-level representatives from different sectors to visit corporations and meet business leaders with the aim of “strengthening Hong Kong’s connections as well as economic and trade exchanges with Thailand,” the government said ahead of the trip.