U.S. orders closure of Chinese consulate in Houston, angering Beijing
China warns of repercussions after U.S. State Department orders closure to 'protect intellectual property'
The United States said Wednesday that it has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston "to protect American intellectual property" and the private information of Americans.
China strongly condemned the move, the latest in a series of steps by the Trump administration as it ratchets up pressure on the world's second largest economy over trade, technology, human rights and security.
In Houston, firefighters responded to reports of papers being burned on the consulate grounds Tuesday night but were barred entry, according to news media reports.
The U.S., in a brief statement, did not provide any details on why the consulate in Texas was specifically targeted.
Speaking alongside his Danish counterpart at a news conference in Copenhagen on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized accusations Beijing was stealing intellectual property in the U.S. and elsewhere.
"President Trump has said 'enough.' We're not going to allow this to continue to happen … we are setting out clear expectations for how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave," said Pompeo. "And when they don't, we're going to take actions that protect the American people, protect our national security and also protect our economy and jobs."
The U.S. also has decided not to reopen its consulate in the city of Wuhan, which was closed in late January at the height of the coronavirus outbreak in China, a Trump administration official said separately. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin condemned the action, which comes at a time of rising tensions between the world's two largest economies. He warned of firm countermeasures if the U.S. does not reverse its decision.
"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 said at a daily news briefing.
Besides its embassy in Beijing, the U.S. has five consulates in mainland China, according to its website. They are in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan and Shenyang.
Fire reported at consulate
Media reports in Houston said that authorities had responded to reports of a fire at the Chinese Consulate. Witnesses said that people were burning paper in what appeared to be trash cans, the Houston Chronicle reported, citing police.
Police were told that occupants were given until 4 p.m. local time Friday to leave the property, the Chronicle said.
Houston police said in a tweet that officers responded to call at the Chinese Consulate building at 3417 Montrose Blvd. The tweet said that smoke was observed in an outdoor courtyard area, and that officers were not allowed to enter the building.
Wang accused the U.S. of opening Chinese diplomatic pouches without permission multiple times, confiscating Chinese items for official use and imposing restrictions on Chinese diplomats in the U.S. last October and again in June. He also said that U.S. diplomats in China engage in infiltration activities.
"If we compare the two, it is only too evident which is engaged in interference, infiltration and confrontation," Wang said.
He also said that the Chinese Embassy in Washington has received bomb and death threats, and accused the U.S. government of fanning hatred against China.
President Donald Trump, whose re-election prospects have been damaged by the coronavirus outbreak, has blamed China repeatedly for the pandemic. Almost every day brings a fresh U.S. action against China, which Trump has repeatedly said is exploiting the United States.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department indicted two hackers based in China it accused of working on behalf of the government in Beijing. The men were accused of targeting firms that are developing vaccines for the coronavirus and of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property and trade secrets from companies across the world.
At a press conference, U.S. officials said the men did not obtain coronavirus research.
As well, the Commerce Department sanctioned 11 Chinese companies over alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region this week.