WASHINGTON - The U.S. ordered the Chinese Consulate in Houston, Texas, shut down because of the persistent problem of Bejing’s theft of U.S. intellectual property, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.
"We are setting out clear expectations as to how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave,” the top U.S. diplomat said at a news conference in Denmark.
“And when they don’t, we are going to take actions that protect the American people, protect our security, our national security, and also protect our economy and jobs,” he said.
China was given until Friday afternoon to close the Houston facility, which has about 60 employees, and President Donald Trump said more consulate closures were “always possible.”
The U.S. order was a sharp escalation of tensions between the United States, the world’s biggest economy, and No. 2 China.
The directive came a day after Trump acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic that originated in China is likely to get worse in the United States before it gets better. The number of coronavirus cases has surged in the U.S. to an average of 66,000 a day over the last week, and the number of deaths, now topping 142,000, is rising again to more than 900 a day after slowing in recent weeks.
Trump has frequently called COVID-19 “the China virus,” but denies any racism behind the name.
Pompeo said China’s Houston operations had a wide impact.
"It’s not just American intellectual property that is stolen,” he said. “It’s been European intellectual property, too, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs — good jobs for hardworking working people all across Europe and America — stolen by the Chinese Communist Party.”
One key Republican lawmaker, Senator Marco Rubio, said in a tweet:
#China’s consulate in #Houston is not a diplomatic facility. It is the central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States. Now that building must close & the spies have 72 hours to leave or face arrest.— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) July 22, 2020
This needed to happen.
Four Republican senators on Wednesday introduced the STRATEGIC Act, a wide-ranging piece of legislation that would address U.S. economic competition with China while emphasizing cooperation in areas of arms control, the environment and relations with North Korea.
“This legislation develops additional tools to help us understand China’s intent, guard against China’s malign influence and safeguard our interests,” Senator Mitt Romney said in a statement issued with Senate co-sponsors Jim Risch, Cory Gardner and Todd Young.
But some congressional Democrats expressed concern that the Trump administration did not have a strategy for dealing with the long-term consequences of the closure of the consulate.
“I'm all for safeguarding our national security. I understand the importance of being tough with China. But being tough is the means, not the ends,” Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday. “I want to understand better not just the tactical considerations but how this measure advances our strategy. What is the effect we expect this to have on China's behavior when China retaliates, as they have said they will? What will be our next move? And our next after that?”
Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told VOA Mandarin there should be more nuance in US policy.
“It is true that China is getting far more repressive domestically. It’s moving toward capital totalitarianism. It has abandoned reform. It has no patience for dissent, and China is getting more aggressive internationally in a way that worries not only the United States but also probably other nations,” Daly said. “We need an effective China policy. Right now, we have a simple 'China is Bad' policy. The critiques of China are all true, but they are not complete."
While Trump has often praised Chinese President Xi Jinping, tensions between the two countries have increased during the pandemic and China’s security crackdown on protests in Hong Kong, which the U.S. and its Western allies have deplored. The U.S. has issued new travel rules for diplomats and also required some Chinese state news organizations to register as diplomatic entities.
Two Chinese nationals were charged Tuesday with hacking hundreds of entities around the world, including U.S. biotech companies developing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, while working with China’s security services.
China strenuously objected to the U.S. order to close the Houston consulate and threatened retaliation.
Speaking to reporters in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the U.S. directive “is an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China.” He accused the United States of harassing Chinese diplomatic and consular staff, as well as “intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and confiscating their personal electrical devices” and going so far as to detain them.
Wang also said Wednesday that there had been bomb and death threats phoned in to the Chinese Embassy in Washington and other consulates in the U.S.
Hours after the order was issued, local Houston television station KPRC broadcast footage of smoke billowing from a courtyard inside the consulate, with firetrucks stationed on the street outside. Houston police said consular staffers were burning documents in open containers in preparation for being evicted, but local authorities did not enter the diplomatic facility.
"I guess they were burning documents and burning papers," Trump said.
There are six other Chinese diplomatic missions in the U.S. — its embassy in Washington, an office at the United Nations and consulates in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.
Lin Yang contributed to this report.