A dramatic scene unveiled Tuesday night when it was reported that personnel at the Consulate General of China in Houston were burning documents in its courtyard. Nearby residents reported seeing and smelling smoke in the air. Houston police and firemen rushed to the building but weren’t allowed to go inside.
It is always an ominous sign when a diplomatic mission starts destroying documents. This scene is reminiscent of a similar event that took place on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor. Smoke could be seen rising from the compound of the Japanese Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. as the embassy staff was busy burning documents, such as codebooks.
In more recent memory, the staff at Russia’s consulate in San Francisco threw documents into flames after the United States government ordered it to shut down in retaliation for Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
‘A Proper and Necessary Response’
This Wednesday morning, China publicly disclosed that Beijing had been ordered by the United States to close its consulate in Houston within 72 hours, leading to the mass destruction of documents at the consulate. China’s Foreign Ministry condemned Washington’s move, stating, “China urges the U.S. to immediately withdraw its wrong decision, or China will definitely take a proper and necessary response.”
The U.S. State Department, on the other hand, claimed this action was necessary to “protect Americans’s intellectual property and private information,” and proclaimed “the United States 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.”
The communist People’s Republic of China has one embassy in Washington D.C., with an additional five consulate-generals spread out in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston. China’s consulate in Houston was established in 1979, the same year Communist China and the United States re-established their formal diplomatic relationship and following China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping’s state visit to Houston. Conversely, there is one U.S. embassy in Beijing, four consulates in mainland China — located in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang — and a consulate general for Hong Kong and Macau.
Many Answered Questions Remain
Closing a consulate and expelling diplomats is a dramatic measure and typically signals the start of downgraded diplomatic relations between nations. Neither Beijing nor Washington have given a good explanation as to why China’s consulate in Houston is targeted. We can only speculate. Here are a few likely explanations.
First, this is a retaliation measure for the imbalance in diplomatic engagement. Reuters cited an anonymous source that claimed that Beijing was considering shutting down the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, despite the American objections.
It’s important to note that Houston is a sister city of Wuhan, and these two recent considerations may be closely linked. Besides, the South China Morning Post reported China denied U.S. diplomats and their families a chance to return to China to resume their work after they were evacuated from China earlier this year during the height of the outbreak, a delay that has caused significant frustration within the U.S. State Department.
According to foreign policy expert Huang Jing, “since day one of U.S-China relations, the U.S. has insisted on establishing diplomatic missions in China based on the principle of reciprocity. But over the years, Beijing has declined the U.S.’s request to open a consulate in western China.” What Huang was truly referring to was China’s rejection of America’s repeated request to open a consulate in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet.
Hence, shutting down China’s consulate in Houston could be seen both as a “pre-emptive” measure against China’s possible closure of the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, as well as a reaction from the United States to what it views as an imbalance in both the number and locations of the diplomatic missions for the two nations.
Spies in Our Midst?
Second, China’s consulate in Houston was accused of being a center of “foreign spies and influence.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who co-chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, tweeted: “#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. This needed to happen.”
Rubio didn’t mention any specific incident to support his tweet. The order to close China’s consulate in Houston, however, came on the same day as the U.S. Department of Justice formally indicted two Chinese hackers, accusing them of stealing “valuable secrets from companies, research institutions, and defense contractors in the U.S. and nine other countries for more than a decade,” including coronavirus-related research. This indictment also accused the two hackers of providing “China’s spy agency with the passwords of email accounts belonging to dissidents, including a Hong Kong community organizer and the pastor of a Christian church.”
Notably, this is the first time the United States has ever linked a hacking case to a foreign government. As The Wall Street Journal quoted John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, “China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran, and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provide a haven for cybercriminals in exchange for those criminals being ‘on-call’ to work for the benefit of the state.”
So far, no link has been established between these hackers and any personnel at China’s consulate in Houston. It is difficult, however, to dismiss the two occurrences on the same day as a sheer coincidence. David Stilwell, a senior U.S. diplomat, alleged that the Chinese Communist Party’s technology espionage activities in the United States spiked in the last six months, likely a desperate attempt to get hold of information on the development of a coronavirus vaccine. Stilwel also referred to the Houston consulate as the “epicenter” of research theft by the Chinese military in the United States, although without providing concrete evidence.
This Isn’t The First Tangle Between China and Houston
The Houston consulate made the news last year as well after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted #StandwithHK to show his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. The spokesperson at the consulate immediately issued a statement, labeling Morey’s tweet as “erroneous,” and said the consulate has “lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact.”
It’s highly unusual for a foreign diplomat to break a diplomacy norm to attack the fundamental First Amendment right to free speech American citizens possess. Yet, at the same time, such behaviors have become common among China’s “wolf” diplomats, a new crop of Chinese combative and antagonistic government “representatives” who are not afraid to push Beijing’s narratives even at the expense of damaging relationships. It’s worth noting that China’s pressure campaign did compel Morey to delete his tweet and resulted in both Morey and the NBA apologizing to China.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration announced almost daily new punitive measures against Beijing. To start, the United States sanctioned senior CCP officials and employees of several Chinese technology companies for their roles in human rights violations. Then the United States rejected most of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea as “unlawful,” and President Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act. But the closure of a consulate is the most dramatic step the Trump administration has taken so far.
The Trump administration’s constant push doesn’t give Beijing much time to digest and react. Even Chinese foreign policy expert Shi Yinhong concluded, “China has less in its toolbox for retaliation in the U.S. and if it took a symmetrical approach its means would soon be exhausted.”
Yet having fewer tools doesn’t mean China won’t retaliate. Chinese nationalists find the forced closure of the Houston consulate deeply humiliating. Chinese internet forces are bombarding all who will listen with condemnations against America and calling for the closing of the U.S. consulate and embassy in China as retaliation.
If Beijing retaliates by closing a U.S. diplomatic mission in China, how will be the Trump administration respond? Will the two most powerful nations in the world sever their diplomatic relationship once and for all?
The Chinese Communist Party is known to believe the precept that “might makes right.” Minxin Pei, professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, recently stated, “Before the rise of Trumpism and the subsequent radical shift in US policy towards China, Chinese leaders had encountered practically no pushback, despite repeatedly overplaying their hand.”
The CCP has finally met its match in the Trump administration, because Trump and his senior advisers “not only believe in the law of the jungle but are also unafraid to wield raw power against their foes.” It’s hard to predict where the Sino-U.S. relationship is going, but one thing we should not doubt is that the cold war between the two nations is on.