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The U.S. State Department informed Chinese diplomats at 4 p.m. on Tuesday that they had just 72 hours to pack up and leave their consulate in Houston.
Hours later, just after 8 p.m., police and firefighters surrounded the consulate after members of the public reported smoke coming from the building and officials burning documents.
Video footage posted by KPRC-TV, a local television station, shows multiple fires burning in the courtyard and officials dumping documents into barrels.
Several witnesses reported some smoke coming from the building but the firefighters and police didn’t enter the building. A Houston Police Department spokesman said the officials would be evicted from the consulate — and a separate compound where many of them live on Almeda Road in the south of the city — by 4 p.m. on Friday.
State Department official Morgan Ortagus said the decision to evict the diplomats was made to protect American intellectual property and the private information of its citizens. It came hours after the Justice Department had accused Beijing of sponsoring criminal hackers who are targeting biotech firms around the world who are working on COVID-19 vaccines. The FBI said the Chinese government was acting like “an organized criminal syndicate.”
The decision to close the Chinese Consulate in Houston is just the latest move in an increasingly bitter Cold War between Beijing and Washington.
The Trump administration has sanctioned diplomats, targeted Chinese state media organizations, and is said to be considering a travel ban for all Communist Party members and their families, a move that would impact 270 million people.
“We have directed the closure of PRC Consulate General Houston, in order to protect American intellectual property and American’s private information,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement Wednesday morning, adding that the U.S. “will not tolerate the PRC’s violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated the PRC’s unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior.”
However, the closure of the Houston consulate was first revealed by Chinese officials on Wednesday morning during a press briefing.
“The unilateral closure of China’s consulate general in Houston within a short period of time is an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told reporters, claiming it was a violation of international law.
Wang said the White House should reverse course immediately, “otherwise China will certainly make legitimate and necessary reactions, beginning with the closure of one of the American consulates in China.
Reuters reported Wednesday that the consulate in Wuhan may be the one to be targeted, though it is unclear if any U.S. diplomats have returned to the building since they were evacuated during the initial coronavirus outbreak in the city in January.
As well as Wuhan, the U.S. has consulates in Shenyang, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Guangzhou — as well as Hong Kong.