With President Donald Trump punishing China ahead of the US election in November, the United States has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, causing serious trouble between the two countries with the world’s largest economies. Beijing on Wednesday condemned the order as an “outrageous act” and said it would take a firm response if it was not reversed.
The closure of the consulate, one of the six Chinese embassies in the United States, marked a heated step not only in the corona virus epidemic but also in trade, human rights, Hong Kong and disputes over China’s stability.
The Trump administration’s actions against Chinese officials, students and researchers include travel bans, registration requirements, and U.S. entry restrictions and other measures. The Trump administration has also announced that it will completely deny all Chinese maritime rights in the South China Sea.
While Trump seeks to blame China for the spread of the corona virus in the United States, the corona epidemic has escalated and Trump’s hopes of re-election are in jeopardy. Trump himself has said that more closures could occur if China does not change its behavior. “It can always be done,” he told White House reporters.
The State Department says the consulate was ordered to close within 72 hours after Chinese agents were accused of trying to steal data from the Texas A&M Medical Complex and the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas at Houston.
There were indications that Chinese consular staff were preparing to leave: a video was released on Tuesday night showing files being burned inside the consulate premises. Chinese Consul General Kai Wei told KTRK-TV in Houston that the closure order was “slightly wrong” and “very detrimental” to US-China relations.
When asked about allegations of espionage and data theft, Kai said, “You have to give some evidence, say something from the facts. Americans know, you have the rule of law, you are not guilty until proven guilty. ”
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that the closure “protected American intellectual property and the personal information of Americans.”
“Just as we did not tolerate (China’s) unfair trade practices, American job theft and other indecent acts, the United States (China) will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and the intimidation of our people,” she said.
“The controversy is being exacerbated by issues related to commercial espionage, intellectual property theft and the unequal treatment of diplomats, businessmen and journalists,” Deputy Secretary of State Steven Begun testified before Congress on Wednesday. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that those factors contributed to Trump’s actions.
Two Chinese hackers have been indicted by the Department of Justice on Tuesday on charges of attempting to steal drug secrets from U.S. companies linked to the COVID-19 epidemic that began in China. While there is no evidence that the Consulate is involved in the indictment, the United States has long accused China of involvement in obscene activities.
China strongly condemned the closure, even before the US announced the closure, which was personally notified to the Chinese ambassador on Tuesday.
“The unilateral closure of the Chinese consul general in a short period of time is an unprecedented escalation of recent actions against China,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. He warned of permanent retaliation if the United States did not withdraw.
Wang accused the United States of opening Chinese diplomatic bags without permission, confiscating Chinese goods for official use, and restricting Chinese diplomats from last October to June. He also said that US ambassadors to China were involved in the invasion.
Firefighters responded to reports that paper had been burned at the consulate premises on Tuesday night, but were barred from entering. On Wednesday afternoon, consular staff were seen loading cleaning equipment and paper products into a van parked outside the building. A U-Hall truck was also parked outside the consulate
The first responder said, “People in the consulate are burning paper because they are evacuating the building,” said Sylvester Turner, Mayor of Houston.
Foreign diplomatic missions operate under the legal immunity provided by international law and may not enter without permission. However, it is not uncommon for classified documents, including U.S. missions, to be destroyed in a location that was ordered at short notice or otherwise forced to close. Most recently in the U.S., a large number of documents were reported burned when the Russian consulate in San Francisco was ordered to close in 2017.
Aside from diplomatic pressure, the closure of the Houston consulate will make it more difficult for China to provide assistance to South American citizens and U.S. nationals seeking its visa and other services.
In addition to the embassy in Washington and the United Nations mission in New York, China also has consulates in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In an effort to prevent the mutual closure of an American diplomatic mission in China, the State Department told the Chinese that it would not reopen its consulate in Wuhan.
The U.S. consulate there was closed in late January at the height of the Corona virus, which began in Wuhan, but the State Department told Congress in early June that it planned to reopen.
In addition to Wuhan, the United States has four other consulates in China – Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenyang – the embassy in Beijing and the consulate general in Hong Kong.
Reflecting on China’s economic importance, a Houston business group lamented the announcement, saying the consulate was important in building trade, investment and cultural ties. When the Houston Consulate opened in 1979, it was the first Chinese consulate in the United States.
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