Explainer: What Houston consulate closure means for China-U.S. ties
Updated 12:56, 23-Jul-2020
By Le Tian, Zhao Hong

The United States on Tuesday ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, Texas, within 72 hours, escalating tensions between the two countries.

U.S President Donald Trump later on Wednesday also threatened to close more Chinese consulates in the United States.

The Chinese consulate in Houston, U.S., April 30, 2010. /AP

The Chinese consulate in Houston, U.S., April 30, 2010. /AP

What happened?

The White House on Tuesday ordered the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston, the first Chinese consulate established in the U.S., to evacuate by Friday, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

The Global Times reported that video footage circulating on social media showed documents being burned in the courtyard of the consulate on Wednesday, with police and firefighters present at the scene. 

The U.S. has increased pressure on China on several fronts in recent months. Aside from clashes over trade and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has been critical of China's handling of its internal issues concerning Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Last week, the U.S. State Department published a statement concerning the South China Sea, criticizing China's position in the region.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sino-U.S. relations are facing their most serious challenges since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979.

What did the U.S. say?

The U.S. said the decision to order the closure of the consulate was taken "in order to protect American intellectual property.”

"We have directed the closure of PRC (People's Republic of China) Consulate-General Houston, in order to protect American intellectual property and American's private information," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

She added 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".

There are five Chinese consulates in the U.S., not counting the embassy in Washington, D.C. and an office at the UN in New York. The U.S. has yet to make clear why the consulate in Houston was singled out.

What did China say?

Describing the U.S. move as an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin urged the U.S. to revoke  its "wrong decision" and warned there will be countermeasures if it does not.

He refuted the U.S. claim of unequal relations between the two countries and the accusation of Chinese infiltration into the U.S., pointing out that it is the United States that has repeatedly set restrictions against Chinese diplomats, opened diplomatic bags from China without permission and seized China's articles intended for official use.

Infiltration and interference in other countries' internal affairs have never been part of the genes or traditions of China's diplomacy, Wang stressed.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry also said the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. has recently received bomb and death threats against Chinese diplomatic agencies and personnel in the United States.

The main building of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., U.S. /Xinhua

The main building of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., U.S. /Xinhua

Why does the consulate matter?

China's diplomatic presence in the U.S. has always been committed to improving mutual understanding and friendship between the two peoples, Wang said.

As a diplomatic facility, the consulate handles issues such as issuing visas, aiding in trade relationships and taking care of migrants or tourists.

As Texas is still seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases, the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston has offered support to overseas students and made donations to help the local community fight against the disease.

Lyu Xiang, research fellow at the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, noted the closure of the consulate would affect overseas Chinese people's lives as well as impact economic and trade exchanges between China and the U.S. in the region.

The U.S. currently has diplomatic missions in six cities on the Chinese mainland, including Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Wuhan and Beijing. 

Staff of the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston at work, April 9, 2020. /Xinhua

Staff of the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston at work, April 9, 2020. /Xinhua

What's next?

Analysts said the closure is a serious escalation in Sino-U.S. ties.

Lyu said the U.S. move is the greatest test to bilateral ties since the establishment of diplomatic relations.

Professor Ma Chengyuan from China University of Political Science and Law considers it is unlikely the two sides will cut diplomatic relations, and noted that there are steps that can be taken to avoid reaching an extreme point.

He said China could adopt equivalent measures, such as closing consulates, or the two sides may downgrade diplomatic relations if the situation worsens.

Saying the fact of the matter is that the U.S.' intends to escalate tensions with China, Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst believes the U.S. is trying to create an international scandal to slander China's international reputation.

While Daniel Russel, a former diplomat and now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told The New York Times that closing the Houston consulate "further reduces the few remaining diplomatic channels between the two sides and is a step that will prove difficult to reverse."

"The China accusation that this move has more to do with presidential politics than with intellectual property is hard to argue with," he added. 

(Graphics by Li Jingjie)