China ordered the U.S. to close its consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu, after the American government forced China to leave its mission in Houston earlier this week in a rare decision.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Friday that the consulate’s closure was a “legitimate and necessary response to the unjustified act by the U.S.”
The widely anticipated retaliation came hours ahead of the U.S.’s deadline for Chinese diplomats to vacate the Houston facility, which the State Department said had served as a hub for spying and influence operations.
Beijing’s decision will not only oust American diplomats from the capital of Sichuan province — a region with a population rivaling Germany — it will close a key listening post for developments in neighboring Tibet. The move will probably have a bigger impact than shutting the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, but less than closing U.S. missions in the key financial centers of Hong Kong or Shanghai.
“It’s not possible to carry out an entirely equivalent action, but choosing Chengdu shows China wants to reduce the harm made to bilateral relations,” said Wang Yiwei, a former Chinese diplomat and director of China’s Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University in Beijing. “The operations out of Chengdu are not the most high-profile of the U.S. mission in China, compared to say Shanghai.”
The closures illustrate the alarming degree to which relations between the world’s two largest economies have worsened in recent years, as China assumes a more assertive posture on the world stage and the U.S. seeks to check its rise. U.S. President Donald Trump and his aides have stepped up attacks on China ahead of the U.S. election in November, accusing Beijing of spying, cybertheft and causing the coronavirus pandemic.
In a speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo accused President Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership of attempting to “tyrannize inside and outside China forever” in pursuit of global hegemony. “Securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time,” Pompeo said.
A commentary published by China’s official Xinhua News Agency moments after the Chengdu announcement said the closure was “only aimed at a few extremist forces in the U.S. government, not the American people.
“The U.S. has stirred up trouble in bilateral relations to the point of hysteria,” the commentary said.
In a sign that relations could deteriorate further, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Thursday answered a question about the future of the U.S.-China trade deal by saying the American side should think “carefully” about where the relationship was heading. Trump said Thursday that the first phase of the trade deal between the two countries means “much less” to him in the wake of the pandemic.
The Chengdu mission, which opened in 1985, covers Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Chongqing in the country’s southwest. The consulate also serves as a key U.S. listening post for developments in Tibet, where Communist Party efforts to suppress dissent have long been a focus of tensions between China and the West.
In 2012, former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun sought refuge in the Chengdu consulate with evidence linking the family of his then boss, former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, to the death of a British businessman. The episode exposed a scandal that would see Bo ousted and his wife convicted of murder, leading Xi to launch a nationwide anti-corruption campaign.
On Friday, security was tight outside the consulate. Dozens of uniformed police, plainclothes officers and People’s Liberation Army personnel patrolled the street outside the building. Pedestrians had their phones searched and were told to delete photos and videos of the area. Multiple officers questioned reporters who were at the scene.
“They wanted to make it hurt a little bit more so they picked Chengdu,” said James Green, a former U.S. State Department official who is now a senior adviser for geopolitical consulting firm McLarty Associates. “What the Chinese care about more — and what we care about more — is what we do out of Chengdu, which is follow Tibet. And shutting that down kind of cuts our link to Tibet, which is a political blow to us.”
Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin, who had earlier reported the timing of the decision on his Twitter feed, said U.S. diplomats were given the same 72-hour notice as their Chinese counterparts in Houston, meaning they must leave by Monday morning.
“The current situation in China-U.S. relations is not what China desires to see, and the U.S. is responsible for all this,” the Foreign Ministry said Friday. “We once again urge the U.S. to immediately retract its wrong decision and create necessary conditions for bringing the bilateral relationship back on track.”