September 21, 2020

China Says U.S. Ordered it to Close Houston Consulate in 72 Hours

The United States ordered China to close its diplomatic consulate in Houston, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Wednesday, dealing another blow to the rapidly deteriorating relations between the two countries.

In the hours after the Trump administration notified the Chinese of its decision, smoke was seen billowing from a courtyard inside the consulate as employees dumped what appeared to be documents into flaming barrels, according to a video posted by KPRC-TV, a local television station.

The Houston police and fire departments responded to reports of a fire on Tuesday evening but did not enter the building, over which the Chinese have sovereignty.

The closure in Houston was the latest effort by the Trump administration to tighten the reins on Chinese diplomats, journalists, scholars and others in the United States. Restrictions have included Cold-War-like travel rules for diplomats and requiring several Chinese state news organizations to register as diplomatic entities. The administration is also considering a ban on travel to the United States by members of the Communist Party and their families, a move that would affect 270 million people.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, urged the United States to reverse the decision immediately. “Otherwise China will certainly make legitimate and necessary reactions,” he said, suggesting that China could, at a minimum, close one of the American consulates in China.

Mr. Wang called the move unprecedented and illegal under international law, and described it as the latest in a series of aggressions.

“For some time, the United States government has been shifting the blame to China with stigmatization and unwarranted attacks against China’s social system, harassing Chinese diplomatic and consular staff in America, intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and confiscating their personal electrical devices, even detaining them without cause,” he said.

Closing a consulate is a serious matter, but it is not, unprecedented in times of diplomatic tensions.

In 2017, the Trump administration ordered Russia to close its consulate in San Francisco, along with two annexes near New York and Washington, in retaliation for Russian restrictions on the number of American diplomats in Moscow. Those moves stemmed from the furor over Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the fallout from which is still felt, despite Mr. Trump’s attempted outreach to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.

In addition to its embassy in Washington, China operates consulates in four other cities: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The effect of the closure on relations — and travel — remained uncertain. Consulates principally process visas for travelers visiting China; the Houston consulate handled those for the southern states, from Texas to Florida. Travel between the two countries has been severely limited in any case because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hu Xijin, an editor with The Global Times, a nationalist newspaper controlled by the Communist Party, called the American move outrageous, particularly given the short notice for Chinese diplomats to clear out within 72 hours.

“This is a manifestation of panic,” he wrote in a note posted on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. “It seems that Washington has no bottom line.”