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On the morning of July 27, uniformed marine security guards lowered the American flag at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu for the last time, signally the compound’s official closure. Outside, police shut down the streets surrounding the building after large crowds had gathered, taking selfies and milling around after Beijing gave the United States 72 hours to close the consulate.
After 35 years, the United States no longer has a mission in western China, a large swath of land that includes the Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou provinces as well as the politically sensitive Tibet Autonomous Region and the megacity of Chongqing.
Beijing’s order came as retaliation for the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston over espionage claims. Tensions over China’s human rights abuses, intellectual property theft, the origins of the coronavirus, and the South China Sea have recently rankled relations between the two largest economies in the world. “We must induce China to change in more creative and assertive ways because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a July 23 speech that declared Chinese engagement a failure.
Residents in high-rises neighboring the Chinese Consulate General in Houston first noticed something amiss on the night of July 21 as they observed people burning documents in the consulate’s courtyard. They called firefighters and police who arrived on the scene but refrained from entering the compound as it is sovereign territory.
Hours later, China’s foreign ministry said the United States had ordered the consulate’s closure within 72 hours, a move it called an “unprecedented escalation” in tensions. By early the next day, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus confirmed the consulate’s closure, saying the move was necessary to "protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information” but did not give additional details.
On July 24, a Justice Department official told reporters the espionage and influence activities of the Houston consulate rose “to a level that threatens our national security.” He pointed to an FBI investigation that discovered a network of Chinese nationals in 25 cities who concealed their connections to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in their student visa applications.
So far, U.S. authorities have charged and arrested four of these PLA members for visa fraud, including a woman who hid in the San Francisco consulate before her arrest. The official noted consulates helped them “evade and obstruct our investigation.”
He said specifically the Houston consulate guided Chinese researchers in stealing medical research and sensitive materials from institutes in the area and coerced Chinese citizens whom China considered wanted fugitives to return to China.
Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for Chinese Political and Military Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, noted that the move to shut down consulates is uncommon as typically countries expel a number of diplomats from the opposing country. But if the reason is espionage, closing the mission would be extremely disruptive for intelligence gathering.
The move to shut down consulates is uncommon as typically countries expel a number of diplomats from the opposing country.
China denies the claims, calling them “malicious slander” and retaliating by ordering the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. Cheng noted that the closure of the Chengdu consulate would result in losses for both the United States and China. The mission provides consular support for thousands of Americans living in Western China and issues visas for Chinese people interested in visiting or moving to the United States. Diplomats are also vital in seeing how things are going on the ground and interacting with locals, and the expulsion will make it more difficult for Americans to understand China as authorities are also kicking out journalists.
“U.S.-China relations are probably at a nadir, this really is some of the worst relations since 1972,” Cheng said, referring to the year that former President Richard Nixon visited Beijing and opened relations with the People’s Republic of China. He noted that in the past when relations have hit rock bottom—such as after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Serbia, or the 2001 collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea—the two countries always had trade to fall back on. But now, trade issues are also part of the problem.
Pompeo delivered one of his pointed speeches against China at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., where he noted how the former president’s policy of engagement with China is no longer effective as China has grown in power and economic might and hardened in its authoritarian ways.
“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,” Pompeo said. He noted the United States needed to act based not on what Chinese leaders say, but what they do: “We must distrust and verify.”
Pompeo invited Chinese dissidents to the speech, including former Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan. He called on the U.S. government to engage with “dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party,” including Uighurs, Hong Kong democracy leaders, and other activists. He also called for the United States to work with “like-minded nations” to counter China before China changes the rest of the world with its economic might.
Cheng believes this tougher attitude toward China indicates that the United States is paying attention to issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang as well as China’s incursion in the South China Sea and intellectual property theft.
“It puts them on notice,” Cheng said. “It makes them aware some of their actions will have costs.” He pointed to how more and more countries have banned the Chinese tech giant Huawei from their 5G networks and noted it’s the result of years of the United States pointing out what China is doing and condemning it: “The U.S.’s audience is not just China. It’s everybody else.”