In a sudden escalation of tensions between the United States and China, the Trump administration made the abrupt decision on Wednesday to order the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston.
The US State Department said that the move was necessary to “protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”
“The United States will not tolerate the PRC’s violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated the PRC’s unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior,” said US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, abbreviating China’s official name: the People’s Republic of China.
The order of closure comes shortly after two Chinese nationals were indicted for conducting a cyberespionage campaign that targeted US and international intellectual property and state secrets. Their actions are believed to have cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars of intellectual property and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
David Stilwell, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, pointed out the consulate’s “history of engaging in subversive behavior.”
He accused Chinese officials of “sending students both overtly and otherwise to American universities to study things to advance their own warfare advantages in the economic world,” as well as escorting Chinese travellers to take charter flights using false identification.
“The epicenter of all these activities facilitated by the PRC mission is this consulate in Houston,” said Stilwell.
He did not provide any further details or evidence to support his claims, leading some to question the order to close the consulate.
“Unless more evidence is forthcoming, the US decision to close the Chinese consulate in Houston looks like a stepped-up effort to use China as the bogeyman and distract US voters from the Trump administration’s disastrous response to the pandemic,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, an expert on Chinese politics and associate professor of government at Cornell University.
Despite this, the closure has also received praise. Richard Grenell, former acting director of US national intelligence, told Reuters that if the decision was up to him, he would have closed both the Houston and San Francisco branches of the consulate.
It is believed that a Chinese researcher has been holed up at the San Francisco consulate since she was accused of visa fraud last month.
US President Donald Trump stated in a news briefing that additional closures of Chinese missions are “always possible.”
This triggered an angry response from Chinese officials, who called the move “outrageous” and an “unprecedented escalation of [US] recent actions against China.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called on the US to reverse its “erroneous decision” at a press briefing on Wednesday, stating that, “otherwise China will make legitimate and necessary reactions.”
He further accused the US of unjustly antagonizing China by “shifting the blame to China with stigmatization and unwarranted attacks against China’s social system, harassing Chinese diplomatic and consular staff in the US, intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and seizing their personal electronic devices, even detaining them without cause.”
While there has been no official indication of potential retaliatory actions, sources close to Beijing have indicated that the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu is a likely target for closure.
Although there were also initial predictions that China would shut down the US consulate in Wuhan, some have said that this would not be a strong enough action because of the mass evacuation from the city during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of state owned magazine Global Times, tweeted that “China’s target will be more likely unexpected, causing the US to feel real pain.”
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