Tensions rise further as US orders China to close Houston consulate

Beijing condemns ‘outrageous move that will sabotage US-China relations’

A firetruck  outside the Chinese consulate in Houston, US, on Wednesday. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

A firetruck outside the Chinese consulate in Houston, US, on Wednesday. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

 

The United States has ordered the abrupt closure of China’s consulate in Houston over intellectual property and data privacy concerns, in a move that has ratcheted up tensions between the world’s two most powerful states.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday that China had been given 72 hours to close the consulate, calling it an “outrageous and unjustified move that will sabotage US-China relations”.

“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,” Mr Wang said, warning of firm countermeasures if Washington did not reconsider its position.

Hours after China was notified of the decision, smoke was seen billowing out of the consulate’s grounds and firefighters and police rushed to the scene after neighbours raised the alarm.

Local media in Houston shared video footage of what appeared to be consulate officials burning documents in several rubbish bins in a courtyard area within the compound.

The Houston police force said in a statement plumes of smoke were observed but their officers “were not granted access to enter the building”. Under international conventions, countries have the right to refuse requests to access from the host country.

‘Intimidation’

State department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement it had directed the closure of the Chinese consulate “in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information”.

She said the US would not tolerate China’s “violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated [China’s] unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behaviour.”

Ms Ortagus added that under international treaties countries “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs” of other nations. She did not elaborate.

Apart from its embassy in Beijing, the US has five consulates in mainland China – in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan and Shenyang.

It was not immediately clear if the consulate closure was linked to a reported dispute between the two nations over the planned reopening of the US consulate in Wuhan, and China’s demand to control the Covid-19 testing of returning US diplomatic staff.

The order to close the consulate came the same day that the US justice department indicted two Chinese nationals for hacking governments, rights activists and companies, including some firms developing Covid-19 vaccines.

A US government statement said China’s hacking, spying and influence-peddling operations had “increased markedly in scale and scope over the years”.

The Trump administration has clashed bitterly with China over a multitude of issues recently, including human rights in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, trade imbalances, Huawei and the rollout of 5G networks, and China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The state department announced recently it was considering introducing a travel ban to the US for the more than 90 million members of the Chinese Communist Party and their family members, a move that would affect about 300 million people.