China has ordered the closure of the United States consulate in Chengdu, days after Washington forced the Chinese consulate in Houston to cease operations.
A statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said US diplomats in China had been notified Friday morning that Beijing was revoking the license for the Chengdu consulate in China’s southwest, which has been ordered to “stop all business and activities.”
It added that the US had “unilaterally provoked the incident” by ordering the closure of the Houston office, an action Beijing said “seriously violated international law and the basic norms of international relations.”
“The current situation between China and the United States is something China does not want to see, and the responsibility rests entirely with the United States,” the foreign ministry said. “We once again urge the US to immediately revoke the erroneous decision to create necessary conditions for the return of bilateral relations to normal.”
At a regular press conference Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accused staff in the Chengdu consulate “of interfering in China’s internal affairs and harming China’s national security interests.”
Wang added that closing Chengdu was a “legitimate and necessary response” to the US demanding that the Chinese consulate in Houston be shut. US officials have made similar accusations about Chinese diplomats acting beyond their duties and engaging in espionage related activity.
The US State Department could not immediately be reached for comment.
Chengdu, the capital of China’s southwest Sichuan province, is an important diplomatic outpost for the US, covering a large swath of the country, including the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The consulate was also the site of the dramatic attempted defection in 2012 by Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, whose actions kicked off a series of events that led to the downfall of top Communist Party official Bo Xilai.
Speaking to CNN ahead of the announcement, James Green, a China analyst at Georgetown and former US diplomat, said that given Washington had recently moved to sanction Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Tibet, “closing the Chengdu consulate might appeal to some.”
Observers had previously suggested Beijing could order the closure of the US consulate in Wuhan, which is informally paired with Houston and the most recent to open in China. But diplomats have not been working from the consulate for several months now, having evacuated early in the coronavirus pandemic. Attempts to return to work were stymied by China’s insistence that diplomats undergo coronavirus testing on arrival, potentially exposing their DNA to the Chinese security services, rather than provide a negative test result.
Jeff Moon, who was the US consul general in Chengdu from 2003-2006 and now runs a China-focused consultancy, said the choice of the Sichuan capital showed Beijing was opting “to continue escalating the conflict rather than to pause or to calm tensions.”
“If China had closed the Wuhan consulate, the matter might have ended there because the issue in Wuhan was China preventing US diplomats from returning to China after the Covid-19 outbreak,” he said. “That could have been resolved over time as tensions cooled.”
Chengdu is important to Washington, Moon said, “because it is the only consulate in western China,” where a number of major US companies operate as part of a major redevelopment strategy pushed by Beijing.
Effectively, this means that two US consulates in China will soon be out of action, while the Chinese office in Houston is still running as of Friday Beijing time, with the deadline for its closure fast approaching.
US President Donald Trump has suggested he might order the closure of more Chinese consulates, with some officials and the FBI linking the diplomatic outposts to espionage and IP theft by China in the US.
Federal prosecutors are currently seeking a Chinese scientist accused of visa fraud who they say is hiding out in China’s consulate in San Francisco.
Relations between China and the US have plummeted in the past year, amid an ongoing trade war, the coronavirus pandemic, and US criticism of China’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday blasted what he said were decades of failed policy towards China, in a speech at the Nixon Library in California.
“As President Trump has made very clear, we need a strategy that protects the American economy and indeed our way of life. The free world must triumph over this new tyranny,” Pompeo said. “The truth is that our policies – and those of other free nations – resurrected China’s failing economy, only to see Beijing bite the international hands that were feeding it. We opened our arms to Chinese citizens, only to see the Chinese Communist Party exploit our free and open society.”
The top US diplomat was recently in Europe where he rallied governments on the continent to take a harder line with Beijing.
His posture has made Pompeo a figure of loathing in China. Reacting to his speech Friday, Hua, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, accused Pompeo of “launching a new crusade against China in a globalized world.”
“What he is doing is as futile as an ant trying to shake a tree,” she added. “It’s about time that all peace-loving people around the world stepped forward to prevent him from doing the world more harm.”