CHANGSHA, China — The United States has ordered China to close its consulate general in Houston “in order to protect American intellectual property and American’s private information,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday.
Beijing vowed to retaliate, calling the order “an unprecedented escalation” in a broader conflict between the world’s two biggest economies, which now encompasses trade and technology, freedom of the press and religion, and the coronavirus and the race for a vaccine.
“The U.S. has far more diplomatic missions and staff working in China. So if the U.S. is bent on going down this wrong path, we will resolutely respond,” Wang Wenbin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters Wednesday.
The State Department did not elaborate on the alleged violations, but Ortagus suggested that China had violated the Vienna Convention, which says diplomats must “respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State” and “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.”AD
“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,” she said, using the abbreviation for China’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.
“President Trump insists on fairness and reciprocity in U.S.-China relations,” she continued.
In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry responded angrily to the order. The U.S. government “abruptly informed” China on Tuesday that it had to immediately close its consulate in Houston, Wang told reporters.
The order came amid American attacks on China’s political system, its harassment of Chinese diplomats and its intimidation of Chinese students, Wang said, vowing retaliation.
“This political provocation has been unilaterally initiated by the U.S. side in violation of international law and basic norms guiding international relations,” he said.ADhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
“China strongly condemns this outrageous and unjustified move to sabotage China-U.S. relations. The Chinese side urges the U.S. side to immediately retract this wrong decision.”
In addition to its embassy in Beijing, the United States has consulates in Shenyang, Shanghai, Wuhan, Chengdu and Guangzhou.
Analysts expect the Chinese government to respond by ordering one of them closed. Beijing was particularly incensed that the United States evacuated its consulate in Wuhan in January, as the virus began spreading rapidly across the city.
It has still not reopened, and the embassy and other consulates are operating with skeleton staff, according to American officials.
The confirmation of the order came after Houston NBC affiliate KPRC2 aired video showing people in the courtyard of the consulate, on Montrose Blvd, apparently burning documents after 8 p.m. on Tuesday night local time.AD
Police and fire officials went to the scene after calls from neighbors but did not enter the building, the television station reported.
Witnesses in nearby apartment buildings told police that people were burning paper in what appeared to be trash cans, a police official told the Houston Chronicle. The consulate staff had been told they would be evicted from the building at 4 p.m. Friday, the paper quoted the unnamed official as saying.
“This is a crazy move,” Hu Xijin, the firebrand editor of the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper wrote on Twitter. Hu, who often shares information on Twitter that has not been officially announced, revealed the 72-hour time frame.
The United States and China have been locked in a tit-for-tat battle for supremacy that began at the start of the Trump administration, centered on trade and technology. Both sides have expelled journalists this year and have been slapping sanctions on each other’s officials.ADhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
But the hostilities have become much more serious with Trump’s efforts to blame the Chinese government for the coronavirus that emerged from Wuhan at the end of last year and retaliatory actions over journalists in the two countries.
Analysts on both sides say that bilateral relations are at their worst since before 1979, when the United States formally recognized the People’s Republic of China.
The Houston consulate was officially opened that same year, the first in the United States outside the embassy in Washington. It is situated in an area with a large Chinese community and handles consular matters for eight states: Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, plus Puerto Rico.
John Hudson in Copenhagen and Liu Yang and Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report.
U.S. orders China’s Houston consulate to close
One day after the Justice Department indicted two Chinese hackers on charges of trying to steal research into a coronavirus vaccine, the U.S. has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston.
In a statement early Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said: “We have directed the closure of [People’s Republic of China] Consulate General Houston, in order to protect American intellectual property and American’s (sic) private information.”
China’s foreign ministry said it had been given notice on Wednesday to restrict all events at its consulate in Houston and to move out all its employees by Friday. It called the move an “unprecedented escalation.”
Hours earlier, local Houston media began reporting that employees at the Chinese consulate in the city were burning documents in the consulate courtyard.
Beijing alleged the U.S. confiscated and opened Chinese diplomatic mail pouches in October and June. The Vienna Convention, an international treaty to which the U.S. and China are parties which governs diplomatic operations, prohibits diplomatic personnel and pouches from being searched.
“If we compare the two [countries], it is only too evident which is engaged in interference, infiltration and confrontation,” Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said at a regular press briefing on Wednesday.
Announcing the order to close China’s Houston consulate, Ortagus also invoked the Vienna Convention.
“The Vienna Convention,” she said, “states diplomats must ‘respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State’ and ‘have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.’
“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,” Ortagus said in the statement.
China immediately raised the prospect of retaliation. The foreign ministry spokesman called on the U.S. to reverse its decision on the consulate, but said, “Should [the U.S.] insist on going down this wrong path, China will react with firm countermeasures.”
Chinese state tabloid the Global Times, which often serves as a conduit for statements of official policy, suggested on Twitter that Beijing could retaliate by shutting down the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong.
The U.S. also operates consulates in Shenyang, Chengdu, Shanghai, Wuhan and Guangzhou. China operates consulates in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, in addition to Houston.
Earlier this month, the U.S. indefinitely delayed the return of many of its diplomats to China because of disagreements over China’s COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements, also citing the Vienna Convention.
Earlier this month, the U.S. sanctioned several elite Chinese Communist Party members for their involvement in orchestrating the detention and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority. The U.S. has also imposed sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for Beijing’s growing control over Hong Kong. China responded by banning several American lawmakers from traveling to China.
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