The U.S. abruptly ordered the closure of China’s consulate in Houston, Texas on Tuesday night – leading to Chinese diplomats burning documents and papers in trash cans in the courtyard of the building.
The State Department claimed the immediate action was needed to ‘protect American intellectual property’ and other private information of American citizens.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, claimed in a tweet Wednesday morning that ‘China’s Houston consulate is a massive spy center, forcing it to close is long overdue.’
‘The United States will not tolerate (China´s) violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated (its) unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior,’ said the statement, which was attributed to State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration is taking action to halt long-running intellectual property theft, noting indictments announced Tuesday against two Chinese individuals accused of hacking.
‘President Trump has said ‘Enough, we’re not going to allow this to continue to happen,” he said while on an official visit to Copenhagen.
Although he did not mention it, the move follows the revocation by Donald Trump of Hong Kong’s special trading status after China passed a sweeping national security law undermining free speech and protests rights in the former British colony after a year of pro-democracy demonstrations.
Early Wednesday, China strongly condemned the closure of the consulate.
The move marks a significant escalation in tensions between Beijing and Washington, although Beijing did not immediately retaliate.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the action ‘an outrageous and unjustified move that will sabotage relations between the two countries.’
‘The unilateral closure of China’s consulate general in Houston within a short period of time is an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China,’ Wang said during a daily news briefing in Beijing.
He warned of firm countermeasures if the U.S. does not reverse this move and others taken against China.
Besides its embassy in Beijing, the U.S. has five consulates in mainland China – in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan and Shenyang.
Firefighters responded to reports of papers being burned on the consulate grounds Tuesday night but were barred entry, local Houston media reported.
In a reflection of China´s economic importance, a Houston business group expressed regret at the announcement, saying the consulate has been important in building trade, investment and cultural ties. It noted that the Houston consulate was China´s first in the U.S. when it opened in 1979.
The Greater Houston Partnership expressed hope that China would take immediate steps to address intellectual property and cybersecurity concerns. ‘We look forward to the reopening of the consulate in Houston once these concerns are addressed,’ it said in a statement.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Yorba Linda, California on Thursday to deliver a speech on U.S.-China relations at the Nixon Library.
Pompeo is expected to step up Washington’s attacks against China at a venue whose significance will not be lost on Beijing.
It was President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing that ended 25 years of diplomatic isolation for China from the U.S. and led to full diplomatic relations resuming in 1979. It also started an era of growing trade between the two countries, which itself was a key to China’s dramatic economic growth, particularly since the 1990s.
Houston media reports said authorities responded to reports of a fire at the Chinese Consulate. Witnesses said people were burning paper in what appeared to be trash cans, the Houston Chronicle reported, citing police.
Police were told that occupants of the consulate have until 4:00 p.m. Friday to vacate the property.
Houston police said late Tuesday night in a tweet that officers responded to ‘a meet the firefighter’ call at the Chinese Consulate building.
‘About 8:25 pm on Tuesday, our officers responded to a meet the firefighter call to the China Consulate General in Houston building at 3417 Montrose Blvd,’ the police department posted on its Twitter.
‘Smoke was observed in an outside courtyard area. Officers were not granted access to enter the building,’ it continued, adding, ‘Since HPD is not a lead agency in the matter, no other information is being released by our department at this time.’
The closure raises questions over whether and how China will retaliate.
Consular closures are traditionally meet with a reciprocal move.
Wang, the foreign ministry spokesperson, claimed that U.S. diplomats in China engaged in infiltration activities.
He also accused the U.S. of opening Chinese diplomatic pouches without permission multiple times, confiscating Chinese items for official use and imposing restrictions on Chinese diplomats in the U.S. in October 2019 and again in June.
He also said that the Chinese Embassy in Washington has received bomb and death threats, and accused the U.S. government of fanning hatred against China.
Tensions between the U.S. and China have been on the rise as President Donald Trump, his reelection prospects damaged by the coronavirus outbreak, has blamed Beijing repeatedly for the pandemic.
He also has brought fresh action against China, including sanctions and executive orders, almost every day against what Trump has called the rising Asian superpower’s exploitation of America.
Already this week, the Commerce Department has sanctioned 11 Chinese companies over alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region and the Justice Department said two Chinese stole intellectual property and targeted companies developing coronavirus vaccines.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, saying U.S.-China relations face their most severe challenge since diplomatic ties were established in 1979, asked recently if the two nations would be able to stay the course after a more than four-decade voyage.