China Orders U.S. to Shut Consulate in Chengdu, Retaliating for Houston

BEIJING — Retaliating for the Trump administration’s order to close China’s consulate in Houston, China announced on Friday that it had told the United States to shut its consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

The tit-for-tat consulate closures were yet another twist in deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing, perhaps the gravest one yet. Previous moves by the two sides have included visa restrictions, new travel rules for diplomats and the expulsion of foreign correspondents. By shutting down diplomatic missions, however, the two countries seem to be moving inexorably toward a deeper divide.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing said the move was a “legitimate and necessary response to the unjustified act by the United States.” It said the United States was responsible for the deterioration in relations and urged it to “immediately retract” its directive to close the consulate in Houston.

China’s announcement came hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech outlining the Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive stance toward China on virtually every aspect of the relationship — from trade to technology.

“We must admit a hard truth that should guide us in the years and decades to come, that if we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,” Mr. Pompeo said on Thursday. “We must not continue it and we must not return to it.”

He spoke in California at the library of President Richard M. Nixon, whose visit to China in 1972 set in motion a new era of relations that, he said, China exploited to the disadvantage of the United States. His reference to the closing of the consulate in Houston was met with a round of applause.

Chinese officials have reacted angrily to the administration’s moves, accusing Mr. Pompeo and others of embracing a Cold War mentality. They have denied or downplayed many of the accusations, including that the consulate in Houston was a hub of illegal activity.

Beijing’s order to close the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, the westernmost of the five American consulates in mainland China, deprives the United States of its most valuable diplomatic outpost for gathering information on Xinjiang and Tibet, the two sometimes-restive regions in China’s far west.

Both regions have been the locations for wide-ranging security crackdowns that have drawn international criticism for abuses of human rights. Chinese officials insist that they have respected international norms.

ImageChina’s consulate in Houston.
Credit…John Mone/Associated Press

In a tweet on Friday, Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, strongly criticized Mr. Pompeo’s remarks. The secretary of state is “launching a new crusade against China in a globalized world,” she wrote. “What he is doing is as futile as an ant trying to shake a tree.”

Administration officials this week accused Chinese diplomats in Houston of aiding economic espionage and the attempted theft of scientific research in numerous cases across the United States. Intelligence operatives from all countries operate out of their embassies and consulates, but with its actions, the administration is accusing the Chinese of going too far, violating American law by lying about their identities in order to operate undercover.

A summary of law-enforcement activities against the Chinese in the United States, provided by officials in Washington to The New York Times, depicted a web of covert activities by the consulate to recruit researchers and others to collect technology and research, including at several of the top medical centers in the greater Houston region.

It also detailed a series of F.B.I. investigations across the country, disclosing that the bureau had conducted interrogations in 25 states of people thought to be members of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, who were sent to study or conduct research at U.S. universities without disclosing their affiliation.

The document said that four of them had been charged and three arrested. One, identified as Tang Juan, studied at the University of California, Davis, and fled to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco to escape arrest, according to the document. That has created yet another diplomatic crisis to untangle.

At the foreign ministry’s daily briefing on Thursday, Wang Wenbin, the senior ministry spokesman, denied that Chinese diplomats had engaged in inappropriate activities and called for the United States not to act against Chinese students or scholars.

China’s decision to close a consulate was expected. China had warned earlier in the week that it would retaliate in kind. At the same time, the government appears to have little appetite for an escalation.

Yet China’s selection of the Chengdu consulate for closure instead of the partly shuttered American Consulate in Wuhan may still rankle the Trump administration. The United States closed the Wuhan consulate and evacuated all personnel there after the Chinese government locked down the city on Jan. 23 in response to the widespread emergence of the novel coronavirus there.

China has complained strongly that the United States gave its diplomats only 72 hours to vacate the consulate in Houston. The public statement released by the foreign ministry did not set a deadline for the closure of the Chengdu consulate. There was no immediate comment from the State Department or the United States Embassy in Beijing.

Mr. Wang said on Thursday that the foreign ministry has been helping the United States to start sending personnel back to Wuhan last month for the resumption of some operations there. Houston and Wuhan are sister cities.

Credit…Liu Zheng/Associated Press

The immediate effect of the two consulates’ closing is expected to be minimal in the short term, especially since the visas they normally process have become moot at a time when travel has been severely limited by the coronavirus pandemic.

One difficulty for China in closing American consulates is that they are needed by many Chinese families. United States consulates in China issued 1.26 million visas in the past fiscal year.

Over the past couple decades, it has also been common for wealthy Communist Party families to fly to the United States to give birth to their children, who obtain American passports. The babies are then brought back to China to grow up, which creates a need to obtain new American passports for the children every five years.

The city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, has also emerged as a hub for China’s expansion across the vast deserts and steppes of Central Asia, through the Belt and Road Initiative begun by China’s top leader, Xi Jinping. Freight trains from Chengdu have carried consumer electronics and other freight across Asia and Eastern Europe to markets in Western Europe for seven years.

Chengdu is also the closest American Consulate to Chongqing, a vast metropolis and manufacturing center. Chongqing has periodically been a center of Chinese political intrigue, most notably in 2012, when its leader, Bo Xilai, and his wife were arrested and later convicted of a range of offenses.

Mr. Bo’s police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, fled to the American Consulate in Chengdu and took refuge there in 2012 when it became clear that Mr. Bo would be detained. The Obama administration subsequently handed Mr. Wang over to the Chinese authorities after determining that he was not eligible for asylum.

Keith Bradsher reported from Beijing, and Steven Lee Myers from Seoul, South Korea.

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