In a shocking unprecedented move on Friday, July 24th, the Chinese consulate in Houston that was given just 72 hours to close with Thursday as the deadline, was a scene of confusion where US federal agents and local law enforcement officials forcefully entered its diplomatic compound.
According to US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus earlier this week, the closure was ordered “in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information”.
A separate State Department statement said China “has engaged for years in massive illegal spying and influence operations” and that those “activities have increased markedly in scale and scope over the past few years.”
US Senator Marco Rubio claimed the consulate was a “massive spy center.” Government vehicles entered the consulate grounds as foreign and local media together with onlookers observed the situation from close by.
On Friday, a US Justice Department spokesperson said the activities of Chinese consulate officials in Houston “are a microcosm, we believe, of a broader network of individuals in more than 25 cities that network is supported through the consulates here.”
The same spokesperson continued by saying, “Consulates have been giving individuals in that network guidance on how to evade [and] obstruct our investigation. And you can infer from that the ability to task that [a] network of associates nationwide.”
The proposal to close the Chinese consulate in Houston was brought up earlier this year when Chinese authorities prevented US officials carrying diplomatic pouches to leave Wuhan without searching the pouches, thus violating the Vienna Convention, drawing the ire of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry called the move an “unprecedented escalation” which added more fuel to the tension between the two superpowers, starting from an ongoing trade war, US accusations on Wuhan being the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, and US criticism of the Chinese government human rights abuse in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, in a tit-for-tat move, the Chinese government has retaliated by ordering the smallest US consulate in Chengdu to close. This consulate is in charge of all the US consular and diplomatic affairs in southwest China.
A statement released by a Chinese government spokesperson said the order to close the US consulate was a “legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable measures by the United States.”
Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said on Friday, “Some of the personnel at the US consulate in Chengdu engaged in activities inconsistent with their capacity. They interfered with China’s domestic affairs and harmed China’s national security interests. The Chinese side has lodged multiple representations. The US know what they have done.”
Critics feel the Chengdu consulate was chosen because of its smaller size, as Beijing could make a point without adding further tension to its already strained relationship with the US.
Coincidentally, this particular US consulate in Chengdu was one of the overseas diplomatic missions that fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden revealed as having surveillance facilities.
Beijing did make a protest and demand an explanation. The consulate was also involved in offering temporarily shelter to the former vice mayor and police chief of Chongquing, Wang Lijun, who was on the run from Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing.
Both officials were later imprisoned on charges including corruption and abuse of power, in one of China’s biggest political crisis in decades. In Beijing, China Foreign Affairs University professor of international relations, Li Haidong, had this to say, “The Chinese side is still trying not to escalate the tension too rapidly.”
25th July 13:50
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