China Orders U.S. to Close Chengdu Consulate as Payback for Houston Move

par Featured articles licensed from The Wall Street Journal | le 24 July 2020





Foreign Ministry says its decision is a ‘legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable behavior of the U.S.’

By Chun Han Wong and Liza Lin – The Wall Street Journal

As a deadline neared for China to vacate its Consulate in Houston, Beijing struck back with the latest in a series of near-daily blows in the downward spiral of the U.S.-China relationship.

On Friday, Beijing ordered the closure of the U.S. Consulate in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, retaliating against Washington’s decision earlier in the week to close China’s Houston mission, as well as American accusations that the Chinese diplomatic outpost was involved in economic espionage and visa fraud.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry similarly accused U.S. Consulate staff in Chengdu of having interfered in China’s internal affairs and damaged the country’s security interests.

Beijing set a 72-hour limit for the Chengdu Consulate to shut down, according to people briefed on the matter, the same amount of time Washington gave Chinese diplomats to vacate the Houston Consulate. U.S. diplomats at the Chengdu Consulate were given 30 days to leave China, the people said.

China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t give a time frame in a statement that said it told the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday morning that the Chengdu Consulate must cease all operations and activities.

The ministry said the decision was a “legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable behavior of the U.S.,” while urging Washington to rescind the Houston Consulate closure and “create the necessary conditions for bringing the bilateral relationship back to normal.”

Beijing announced its response ahead of Washington’s Friday deadline for the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, and just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a speech called on Chinese citizens to work with the U.S. to change the Communist Party’s direction.

In recent weeks, the deterioration of ties between the world’s two largest economies have accelerated after a long erosion and clashes over trade, technology and geopolitical influence, as well as the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The closure of consulates is unprecedented since the U.S. and China normalized relations in 1979, and represents a new type of conflict between the two powers, according to Drew Thompson, a visiting senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Previous episodes of bilateral tensions—such as those that followed Beijing’s deadly crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the 1999 U.S. bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade—were sparked by specific incidents and ebbed over subsequent months.

“Now the tensions are much more wide, more systemic and wide-ranging,” Mr. Thompson said.

“The emergence of the current situation between China and the U.S. is something that China doesn’t wish to see,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in its statement. “The U.S. bears all responsibility.”

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Beijing’s move drew broad praise on Chinese social media. On the Twitter-like Weibo platform, state broadcaster China Central Television set up a video stream airing live scenes from the Chengdu Consulate, which had been viewed more than 27 million times by late afternoon Friday in China. Some viewers mocked the U.S. Consulate by posting messages saying they are sending a “congratulatory cable” to them.

Waves of U.S. diplomats are expected to arrive back in China in the coming weeks, people familiar with the matter say, after leaving earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which first erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. A flight from Washington arrived in Shanghai on Friday, carrying more than a hundred diplomats and their family members, some of whom are bound for Chengdu, according to one person.

Beyond the Chengdu mission and its embassy in Beijing, the U.S. also has consulates in the Chinese cities of Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang and Wuhan—as well as in Hong Kong.

The Chengdu Consulate tracks developments in China’s Tibet region, where simmering separatist sentiment has been among the most politically sensitive issues for Beijing. Its area of responsibility also includes the nearby megacity of Chongqing and the ethnically diverse provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou as well as Sichuan, of which Chengdu is the capital.

Some U.S. and other foreign diplomats said they considered the Chengdu mission to be Beijing’s likeliest target for retaliation, given its relative similarity to the Chinese Consulate in Houston in terms of size and significance.

Shutting the U.S. missions in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong would be seen as aggravating tensions given their importance as diplomatic bases in major commercial hubs similar to New York and San Francisco, while Beijing likely regarded the Wuhan Consulate—the smallest U.S. diplomatic mission in China—to be too inconsequential, these diplomats said.

“Closing the Chengdu consulate is also a form of retaliation against U.S. interference in Tibetan affairs,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

At a routine briefing on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said “some personnel” at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu were carrying out “activities inconsistent with their status,” interfering in China’s internal affairs and harming its security interests.

“The Chinese side has made representations many times, and the U.S. side is well aware of this,” Mr. Wang said, without elaborating on the alleged U.S. activities.

The U.S. Consulate in Chengdu offers U.S. citizen and visa services and promotes cooperation in agriculture, trade and education, among other tasks. Opened in 1985 by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, the consulate normally has a staff of nearly 200, including around 150 locally hired Chinese employees, according to its website.

About 160 staffers, including around 15 U.S. diplomats, have remained in the outpost after most American employees left in the early days of the pandemic, according to people familiar with the situation.

In February 2012, the Chengdu Consulate became the scene of political intrigue when a former Chinese police chief holed himself up in the consulate for 30 hours as he offered American diplomats what he said was information implicating the wife of a powerful Communist Party official in a murder case.

That incident kicked off months of political drama that derailed the fast-rising career of Bo Xilai, the Chongqing party chief who was seen as a contender for higher office. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption and abuse of power. Mr. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of murder, while the police chief, Wang Lijun, was also jailed.

The Peace Corps had managed its activities in China out of Chengdu, with its main office based in a local university, before it pulled out of the country earlier this year.