The U.S. may have fanned the flames of a “new cold war” this week when the U.S. State Department abruptly ordered the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, an act followed by Chinese officials inside the building apparently burning documents in metal barrels.
The order mandated that all employees move out of the mission by Friday afternoon.
The State Department hasn’t specified the event that prompted the consulate’s closure, but the order came less than 72 hours after the Department of Justice indicted Chinese hackers Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi on charges that allege theft of coronavirus-related pharmaceutical research from U.S. companies. Morgan Ortagus, a spokesperson for the State Department, said the government ordered the compound to shutter “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.” In an interview, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell vaguely described the Houston consulate as a hub for “subversive behavior” and research theft.
According to the New York Times, the FBI has conducted multiple investigations with connections to the consulate in Houston. They include plans to coax more than 50 people to hand over sensitive research on Chinese organizations, efforts to obtain classified medical findings, and the persuasion of wanted Chinese fugitives in the U.S. to go back to China.
China swore retaliation immediately, leading some to fear that Beijing might shut down the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, the so-called sister consulate of the Chinese Embassy in Houston. On Thursday, the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing is preparing to close the U.S. Consulate in the city of Chengdu. [Update, July 24 at 8:48 a.m.: China has ordered the Chengdu consulate to close.] The Chinese Embassy in Washington has described the U.S.’s accusations as “groundless fabrications.” And Cai Wei, the Chinese consul general in Houston, told Politico that China plans to protest the closure. “We think that the demand from the U.S. side … is not according to international practice or [diplomatic] norms, and it violates the China-U.S. consular treaty,” Cai said. “We prepared for the worst scenario but we’ve also launched a strong protest … so we urge the U.S. to abandon and revoke that wrong decision.”
The Chinese Consulate in Houston is one of six in the U.S. At a news conference on Wednesday, addressing the question of whether the U.S. would close more Chinese embassies, President Donald Trump said, “It’s always possible.”
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors on Thursday charged a Chinese cancer researcher in connection with lying about her ties to the People’s Liberation Army, and the FBI believes she is hiding out in the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. Prosecutors say Tang Juan allegedly fudged her connection to the Chinese military in a visa application last October and lied last month in an interview with the FBI, whose agents uncovered photos of Tang sporting the uniform of the People’s Liberation Army civilian cadre. During the conversation, Tang denied her military affiliation and claimed she didn’t understand what the insignia on her uniform signified.
On Monday, charges against Song Chen, a visiting Stanford University researcher, likewise alleged that Song concealed her membership in the Chinese military and committed visa fraud.
The U.S. has a history of indicting foreign officers and intelligence operatives—but to little avail in preventing future cyberattacks. Rep. Jim Langevin, who served on a congressionally created cyberdeterrence commission, told the New York Times, “Our problem is that we have to be much more clear about what actions we won’t tolerate and what the consequences will be.” But instead of allaying future threats to the United States, these new actions risk elevating an already tense relationship between the two global powers.