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China slams closure of its Houston consulate by Washington

Chinese consulate in Houston (WhisperToMe/WikiCommons)
July 24, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China’s state media reacted on Thursday to what it called the “shocking” decision by Washington to shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston.

The U.S. ordered China to shutter its consulate in Houston by July 24, citing concerns that it was being used as an espionage hub.

Beijing immediately said it would retaliate, although details of the action it is planning have yet to emerge.

“The U.S. unreasonably asked China to close its consulate in Houston, giving staff there only 72 hours to leave the country,” the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily, said in an opinion piece on Thursday.

“U.S. insanity is shocking,” it said, warning that the move would upset the reciprocal arrangement that each country has five consulates on the other’s territory.

“The November presidential election is driving Washington mad,” it added.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the closure of the consulate “has broken the bridge of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”

The United States currently has consulates in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Chengdu, Wuhan, Hong Kong, and Macau, as well as its embassy in Beijing.

China has its embassy in Washington, and consulates in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, besides Houston.

‘A serious escalation’

Wang earlier said the closure of the Houston consulate was a “serious escalation” of growing bilateral tensions, which have seen both sides impose sanctions on each other’s media organizations after the U.S. said Chinese state media organizations were equivalent to foreign embassies.

The state-run English-language China Daily said the closure of the Houston consulate with three days’ notice was “a major provocative move” on the part of the administration of President Donald Trump.

Trump has indicated that more Chinese consulates could be ordered to close.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post cited sources as saying that the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, would likely be targeted for retaliation.

China’s Houston consul general told reporters that the move was “unbelievable,” and called for friendly ties between Beijing and Washington, which recently signaled an end to the past few decades of engagement with China, and a move to a more competitive approach in the bilateral relationship.

“Any war, whether hot or cold, between our two peoples would be a disaster for two major countries,” he said.

U.S. media have quoted sources as saying that the move to shutter the consulate was triggered by China’s denial of entry to 1,300 diplomats and their families from the United States during the coronavirus epidemic.

Other reports have cited fraud allegations against a Chinese scientist surnamed Tang, who turned out to be a member of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but who had concealed this from the University of California at Davis, where she was a researcher.

Tang took refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco after being charged with visa fraud last month.

Ding Shu-fan, honorary professor of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Taiwan’s Chengchi University, said Chengdu was a likely target for Beijing’s retaliation move.

“Sichuan is an important province in China for military science and technology, but … the U.S. hasn’t sent overseas students to study in universities and steal its technology or secrets,” Ding said.

“Basically, closing the Chengdu consulate would be pretty much like closing the Guangzhou consulate.”

Tensions may continue to rise

Hong Kong current affairs commentator Sang Pu said bilateral tensions, already inflamed by the U.S. response to a draconian security regime in Hong Kong, are likely to continue to rise.

“It seems that they aren’t just trying to contain China or teach it a lesson, but more to take it down, to end the regime,” Sang said. “What is stopping them?”

“There are voices in favor of appeasement, led by the European Union, which say no, this has to end somewhere, because the two sides still need to do business,” he said.

“But I don’t think they realize the strength of U.S. determination.”

After being informed by the State Department late on Tuesday that the consulate in Houston had until 4:00 p.m. on Friday to vacate, Chinese officials were seen stuffing what appeared to be documents into burning barrels in the building’s courtyard, according to local media reports.

Emergency services responded to calls about billowing smoke in the area, but did not enter the compound, over which China has sovereignty.

The consulate in Houston, which mostly issues visas for applicants in the southern states, was the first to be opened in the U.S. by Beijing after Washington officially recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979.

The move is the latest in a series of Trump administration actions targeting China, ranging from sanctions over China’s imposition of harsh security laws in Hong Kong and over human rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang to public denunciations of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.

It also came on the same day that a U.S. grand jury indicted two hackers affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security for a 10-year global campaign in which they broke into the computer systems of hundreds of companies, and recently targeted firms researching a coronavirus vaccine.

Earlier this month, Trump’s administration leveled sanctions against several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in Xinjiang, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, was followed by similar sanctions against Chinese officials seen to be responsible for recent heavy restrictions on the autonomy of Hong Kong.

Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry announced retaliatory sanctions targeting several republican lawmakers, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China advisory panel.