Beijing has ordered the closure of a US consulate in south-western China, in a move that escalates tensions between the two countries to a new level.
On Friday, China’s ministry of foreign affairs said it had ordered the US consulate in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, to cease all operations. Authorities notified the US of China’s decision to revoke its consent for the consulate to operate, according to a notice on the ministry’s website.
Describing the measure as a “legitimate and necessary response” to the actions of the US, which earlier this week gave the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, 72 hours to close, Beijing called on Washington to reverse its decision. Chinese officials said on Friday the mission in Houston was still operating.
“The current situation between China and the United States is something China does not want to see, and the responsibility rests entirely with the United States,” it said, urging the US to bring “bilateral relations back on track”.
China’s ministry of foreign affairs did not give a deadline for when the consulate must close but the editor of the state-run Global Times newspaper said on Twitter the consulate had been given 72 hours to close.
The tit-for-tat retaliation over consulates marks a new low in months of deteriorating relations between the two rivals. Without giving further details, the US said it ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston to shut in order to protect “American intellectual property and private information”.
China called the measure “unprecedented” and “outrageous”, and accused US diplomats of “infiltration and interference activities”.
A foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said at a press briefing on Friday that the US mission in Chengdu had been singled out because “some personnel were engaged in activities inconsistent with their status, that interfered with China’s internal affairs and security interests”.
He said: “Diplomacy is about reciprocity.”
By closing the consulate in Chengdu, Beijing appears to be reciprocating in kind – shutting a smaller mission rather than more crucial US operations in China. The US has seven diplomatic missions in China – in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan, Shenyang and Hong Kong.
“By avoiding Hong Kong, Shanghai and Guangzhou, it helps not to escalate the level of conflict and is a more even match,” said Dali Yang, a professor of political science focusing on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.
Still, the consulate, which oversees China’s south-west, is politically sensitive in some respects. It overseas the Tibetan autonomous region where authorities have overseen a harsh crackdown on the Tibetan minority and banned diplomats and foreign journalists from entering the area.
In 2012, the police chief of the south-western city of Chongqing fled to the Chengdu consulate, seeking help after falling out with then Chonqqing party chief, Bo Xilai, setting off one of the most dramatic political scandals to roil the Chinese communist party elite in the last decade.
The closure comes less than a day after the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, gave a provocative speech calling on Chinese citizens to work with the US to change the direction of the ruling Chinese Communist party.
Stopping short of calling for regime change, Pompeo said: “Today China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else.”
“We, the free nations of the world, must induce change in the Chinese Communist party’s behaviour in more creative and assertive ways, because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity,” he said, calling the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, a “true believer in a bankrupt, totalitarian ideology”.
“If the free world doesn’t change communist China, communist China will change us,” he added.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman described as futile Pompeo’s efforts to “launch a new crusade against China”. “What he is doing is like an ant trying to shake a tree,” she wrote in English and Chinese on Twitter, which is blocked in China and used by Chinese diplomats to target international audiences.
Wang on Friday described Pompeo’s speech as a “malicious” and “groundless attack” on the Communist party and its domestic and foreign policies. “Pompeo’s remarks ignore facts, turn what is black into white and are full of ideological prejudice and a cold war mindset,” he said.
Analysts say the Chinese leadership has found itself increasingly boxed in by growing opposition within the international community, the result of US lobbying as well as more aggressive and controversial measures by Beijing.
Hours after the foreign ministry’s announcement, Americans in China received a security alert, reminding them of the risk of “arbitrary detention” and the possibility of being blocked from leaving, or exit bans. US citizens in China received a similar alert a few weeks ago.
The most recent notice told Americans to “exercise increased caution,” warning that citizens may be “subjected to prolonged interrogations and extended detention for reasons related to ‘state security’”.
On Friday, journalists in Chengdu reported a heavy police presence outside the consulate following the announcement on Friday, with officers checking phones and ordering people to delete photographs.
It was not clear how many people would be affected by the closure. Opened in 1985, it has more than 200 employees, including about 150 are locally hired Chinese staff. Many diplomats had left the country during the pandemic and have struggled to return.
A livestream hosted by the state broadcaster CCTV showed little movement outside the mission but was being watched by as many as 20 million people on Friday afternoon. Many signalled their support of the closure – with one internet user calling for the mission to be renovated and turned a hotpot restaurant. Others criticised the measure.
“Confrontation is not good, it affects the economy. It affects everyone,” one user said.