U.S. Braces for Chinese Diplomatic Retaliation as Ties Break Down
| le 23 July 2020
After U.S. demanded closure of China’s Houston consulate, American diplomats prepare for similar order from Beijing
By Chun Han Wong
and Liza Lin – The Wall Street Journal
HONG KONG—The U.S. State Department is preparing for Beijing to close one or more U.S. consulates in China after Washington ordered the abrupt shutdown of the Chinese Consulate in Houston.
American diplomats stationed across China have been anticipating that Beijing could target their own diplomatic missions for retaliation, and are making preparations in case that happens, according to people familiar with the matter.
China’s Foreign Ministry denounced the Houston order and said it would retaliate, but Beijing hasn’t specified how it would strike back.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) predicted that China would order the closure of the consulate in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The editor in chief of a Chinese Communist Party newspaper has suggested that Beijing would likely demand the shutdown of a larger diplomatic mission. The State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Any such move would feed into the latest escalation of tensions between the U.S. and China, a bilateral relationship that has been marred in recent months by trade friction, disputes over the future of Hong Kong and the origins and handling of the new coronavirus.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has devoted a string of speeches this year to decrying what he regards as China’s violation of international norms, is set to deliver an address on China issues on Thursday afternoon at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif.
The U.S. has seven diplomatic missions in China, including the embassy in Beijing and consulates in five mainland Chinese cities—Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang and Wuhan—and in the partly autonomous city of Hong Kong.
The Wuhan consulate is the smallest U.S. diplomatic mission in China. It is in a commercial office tower in the city, which this year became the initial epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. The consulate offers emergency services to Americans and promotes bilateral trade in the central Chinese provinces of Hubei, Hunan, Henan and Jiangxi.
It is also the newest U.S. diplomatic outpost in China, reopening in 2008 after almost six decades. The U.S. first stationed a consul in 1861 in what was then known as the river port of Hankou, which later became a part of Wuhan.
The consulate was closed in 1949 after Mao Zedong’s Communist forces seized power on the Chinese mainland, forcing the U.S.-recognized Nationalist government to retreat to Taiwan. Washington switched its diplomatic recognition to the Communist government in 1979.
In late January, at the height of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, the U.S. government closed the consulate and evacuated its diplomatic staff from the city, along with hundreds of U.S. citizens and their dependents, in a series of chartered flights.
The State Department had only recently begun to bring its diplomats back to Wuhan, and the consul general, Jamie Fouss, has been working in Wuhan with minimal staff, according to people familiar with the matter.
“The Chinese side has always provided convenience for U.S. consulates to perform their duties in accordance with the law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Thursday, confirming that some U.S. diplomatic personnel returned to Wuhan last month.
Sen. Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has emerged as one of Washington’s most hawkish voices on China, told Fox News on Wednesday that he expected Beijing would respond to the order to close China’s consulate in Houston by closing “one of our facilities somewhere in China, probably Wuhan.”
Hu Xijin, the chief editor of the Communist Party-run tabloid Global Times, tweeted early Thursday that the U.S. had made some preparations for withdrawal from Wuhan, but dismissed the consulate there as a small price for the U.S.
“I think China’s target will be more likely unexpected, causing the U.S. to feel real pain,” he tweeted.
Even with the return of some diplomatic staff to Wuhan and other U.S. missions in China, the U.S. remains deeply understaffed in China after coronavirus-related evacuations.
Though the U.S. would like to send back more diplomats, disputes between Washington and Beijing over coronavirus-testing protocols for returning diplomatic staff have gummed up the process, according to people familiar with the matter. As a result, many American diplomats previously stationed in China are still in the U.S. It is unclear whether the latest dispute will affect these diplomats’ planned return.
The U.S. Consulate in the southern city of Guangzhou has long served as a hub for international adoptions by Americans, while the consulate in the northeastern city of Shenyang is responsible for monitoring developments in Chinese regions bordering nearby North Korea.
Beijing has accused American diplomats at the consulate in Hong Kong of stirring up unrest during last year’s antigovernment protests, including meeting with activist Joshua Wong.
The consulate in the affluent financial center of Shanghai, where thousands of Americans reside, serves as a diplomatic base for many of eastern China’s prosperous cities.
The U.S. Consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu has responsibilities for tracking developments in China’s Tibet region, where simmering separatist sentiment has been among the most politically sensitive issues for Beijing. This consulate normally had nearly 200 staff, including around 150 locally hired Chinese employees, according to its website.
In February 2012, the U.S. outpost in Chengdu 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 Communist Party chief in nearby Chongqing seen as a contender for higher office, who 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.