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Videos: US closes consulate in Chengdu amid rising tensions with Beijing

U.S. Consulate General Chengdu (U.S. Consulate General Chengdu/WikiCommons)
July 27, 2020

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

Authorities in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu on Monday escorted anti-U.S. protesters away from the former U.S. consulate in the city, as the American flag was hauled down and staff left the premises after Beijing ordered the facility to close.

One man shouted: “Long live the Chinese people! Long live the Communist Party of China!” before being led away by special police officers.

Another wore a shirt that read “SLING OUT USA!” in English, while officers removed a bouquet of flowers left outside the gates.

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Security was tight in the streets around the building on Monday, with police cordoning off a wide area and preventing media organizations from approaching the area.

Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the closure of the consulate, which came after the Chinese consulate in Houston was given three days to evacuate amid allegations of spying, was a “legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable act.”

“We urge the U.S. to immediately correct its mistakes and create necessary conditions for the relationship between the two countries to return to the normal track,” Wang said.

After the building was vacated by staff and logistics companies, workers covered up the signs and a bronze plaque near the entrance.

Passers-by posed for selfies and waved Chinese flags outside the former consulate once the cordon was lifted.

The Chengdu consulate made headlines around the world in 2012, after former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun fled there in an unsuccessful asylum claim that brought down Chongqing ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai in the biggest political scandal in decades.

Spying allegations

The order to close the Chinese consulate in Houston last week came amid allegations from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump that the facility was a hub for espionage activities in Texas, which had targeted the Texas A&M medical system and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

China has denied the allegations, but later made similar claims about the activities of U.S. personnel based in Chengdu.

The U.S. State Department said the consulate “has stood at the center of our relations with the people in Western China, including Tibet, for 35 years.”

“We are disappointed by the Chinese Communist Party’s decision and will strive to continue our outreach to the people in this important region through our other posts in China,” it said in a statement on the closure.

China’s foreign ministry said U.S. diplomats had closed the consulate at 10 a.m., as ordered.

Sophie Richardson, China director at the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the deteriorating bilateral relationship would seriously impact the flow of reliable information coming out of Tibet and Xinjiang about human rights abuses in those areas.

“This is a real problem, because that consulate really has been an important post for years in collecting first-hand information,” Richardson told RFA’s Tibetan Service.

“And it’s not clear whether, or when, the State Department will be able to resume that operation.”

China retains consulates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York in addition to its embassy in Washington, while the U.S. has four other consulates in China and an embassy in Beijing.

Fear-mongering

The closures of diplomatic missions came amid allegations of fear-mongering by local authorities in Beijing over the weekend.

Local authorities posted an air-raid warning poster in the capital’s Haidian district on Saturday, according to video footage circulating on social media, prompting anxious comments about a possible U.S. attack.

A Beijing resident surnamed Wu said the fears were being deliberately stirred up by the local authorities.

“[They want to] stir up public anger; the fact that they [mention] preparations for war implies that the United States will go to war with us,” Wu said.

“But the government knows very well that this is a war that they would lose immediately … such propaganda from the government makes people very nervous,” he said.

Officials at the Haidian district civil defense office had no response to a request for comment by the time of writing on Monday.

Chinese political scholar Sun Bin said he had seen similar propaganda in other parts of the country.

“It’s not just in Beijing … According to my information, such things have appeared in other places, including along the southeastern seaboard,” Sun said.

“Retired naval and air force personnel are posting that they are being told to register with the local neighborhood committees, along with their family members, which means that they could be recalled to military service at any time,” he said.

A notice issued by the Chongqing Shuiyun Road Community Neighborhood Committee on July 24 appeared to confirm Sun’s report.

It called on the families of active border and coastal defense officers and soldiers — especially those stationed in Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan, Guangxi, and Hainan — to register with the neighborhood committee.

“They are whipping up this kind of tension across the country,” Sun said. “The authorities often control the population by creating tension, and there is some resistance to this from some people, who may wear a shirt showing support for the U.S., for example.”

Preparations for war

Hu Xijin, editor of the highly nationalistic Global Times tabloid, called via his Weibo account for an expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal to counter any threat from the U.S.

On his Twitter account, he wrote: “Many people are asking whether there will be a war between China and the U.S. … people don’t know how crazy theTrump team can be and whether the US can control them.”

Sources told RFA’s Cantonese Service that military hospitals had been required to submit plans two days ago for stockpiling in the event of a nuclear conflict.

Repeated calls to the People’s Liberation Army Central Theater General Hospital in the central city of Wuhan were cut off after connection during office hours on Monday.

Political commentator Zeng Zhi said such moves are in themselves a form of propaganda that is intended to send a signal to the U.S.

“[They are mentioning nuclear engagement] because it doesn’t matter to Beijing if they lose one or two billion people, regardless of what ordinary people would want,” Zeng said.

A journalist surnamed Zheng said that, in a similar vein, plans had also been recently released for the emergency evacuation of Shanghai’s Songjiang district.

“Everything is such a mess; it’s impossible to predict what will happen,” Zheng said. “The more radical voices at Communist Party Youth League have been doing a lot of this kind of thing.”

“All of them, including Xinhua and the People’s Daily, as using the same strategy they always have, and are engaging in brainwashing and propaganda,” he said.

An academic surnamed Tan agreed that the “war preparations” didn’t indicate that Beijing was intended to launch a military conflict with the U.S.

“They wouldn’t really dare to go to war,” Tan said. “But there are people in the Communist Party who are clamoring for war because it suits their interests.”

Repeated requests for comment to the ministry of defense had met with no response at the time of writing.

Beijing-based political commentator Zha Jianguo said a cold war between China and the U.S. had now begun in earnest.

He said the South China Sea could be a potential flashpoint for military conflict between the two sides.

“Misfires are possible, especially in the South China Sea,” Zha said. “A misfire in that area could have a huge impact [on regional stability].”