US-Sino relations: ‘Trade war, cold war, maybe real war?’
‘Why are they playing Radiohead? Do they think Xi is a creep? Trump is a real creep!’
US consulate in Chengdu: China has revoked its licence as tensions mount between Beijing and Washington. Photograph: Yuyang Liu
For a brief moment screams and panic punctuated the carnival atmosphere outside the shuttered US consulate in Chengdu.
With hundreds of police and military surrounding the diplomatic mission, and the area thronged with curious locals on a steamy Friday evening, loud cracks and explosive pops suddenly ripped through the street.
Some people dived to the ground. Others ran, shrieking. Special forces toting machine guns swooped from the shadows into the middle of the street. Gunpowder wafted through the humid air.
“It’s only firecrackers,” one man screamed. There was an audible sigh of collective relief, mixed with laughter, followed by cheers, yelps and applause.
The evidence lay smouldering in a straight red line pointing directly at the barricaded steel gate of the American consulate that China had just ordered to close. In traditional Chinese celebratory style, two men had secreted a long string of firecrackers out of a backpack and set them off as a defiant farewell to Washington’s envoys.
With the deed done, they made a bolt for it but were immediately nabbed and bungled into the back of a police car.
“They are true Chinese heroes,” a young man shouted, as the pair were driven away. “They will go to jail for two weeks or maybe a month, I guess,” he said, “but the Chinese people will always respect and admire them.”
US consulate closed
The crowds had come to catch a glimpse of “the building of history”, as one woman put it – the US consulate in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu that Beijing demanded shut its doors on Friday morning as a “legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable measure by the US”.
Washington’s measure had been to give China 72 hours this week to depart its consulate – a “hub of spying and intellectual property theft”, according to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo – in Houston, Texas.
“It is incredible, unbelievable that our relationship has got so bad. It is scary, I think,” said one onlooker, Liu Guoyan, a 42-year-old driver in a haulage firm.
“Trade war, cold war, maybe real war? It is really frightening. America should not be our enemy, but they are not treating us with respect,” he said.
There was nobody coming in or out of the consulate on Friday but loud rock music could be heard from one of the apartments for the diplomatic staff inside the compound. At one point the sound was ramped up and Radiohead’s Creep rang clearly through the air, with several of the local Chinese on the street outside singing along.
“Why are they playing Creep?” one university student asked. “Do they think [Chinese president] Xi is a creep? Trump is a real creep!”
While many in the crowd were in a festive mood, the police were an intense presence. When The Irish Times took a photograph of the exterior of the building, a 30-minute interrogation ensued and all photographs were deleted.
“This is now a special area,” one officer said. “No photographs, no interviews. None. Or there will be trouble.”
They had their work cut out for them on the photograph front. As Chengdu’s rush hour approached, tens of thousands of commuters streamed by, with seemingly just about every one of them taking out their phones on the way past to snap the diplomatic mission in their hometown that was making international headlines.
‘Delete, delete, delete’
“Delete, delete, delete! No photos!” harried police screamed, running from phone to phone to wipe away the digital records. “Don’t look at the consulate as you pass! Look the other way!”
“Jesus!” one elderly woman exclaimed as she struggled to work out how to expunge images on her phone as a young policeman harangued her. “I am more than 80 years old and I have just learned how to take photographs on this, and now I have to delete them!”
The crowd continued to swell into the early evening. A recent biology graduate from Sichuan university called Gregory Zhang said he thought the escalating tensions were largely down to the upcoming elections in the US. “China is a political football now, but things will calm down after the election.”
He said he personally admired the US and had recently been offered a place in Georgia Tech university, which he planned to take up next year. When asked where he would get his US student visa from he pointed to the shuttered consulate, before suddenly realising that would no longer be an option.
“Oh crap! I might have to go to the Beijing embassy then. And that might close next if things get worse,” he said. “Anyway, if I can’t go that is a shame for me, but our country has to take whatever action it needs to take.”
The US mission has been on the same street in Chengdu since 1985, and the street it is on is called Consulate Road in its honour.
“I propose we change the name now to Liberation Road,” said Jack Cai, a 28-year-old programmer who had travelled across the city to witness “real history”.
His family and friends were “very, very nervous” about the souring relations, he said, adding most people he knew felt China would ultimately suffer as a result.
“So we are nervous, yes. But in some ways I am so, so proud,” he said. “Ten years ago China would never have dared to do this, to kick the Americans out. This time China has really stood up.”