China orders U.S. to close consulate in Chengdu amid rising diplomatic tensions

The move — coming as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declares U.S. policy on China a failure — follows the U.S. ordering the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston.
Image: U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu after China announced the decision to revoke it's license, July 24, 2020 in Chengdu, China.
The U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu on Friday.Yuyang Liu / Getty Images

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By Luke Denne, Janis Mackey Frayer, Abigail Williams and Eric Baculinao

China on Friday ordered the United States to shut its consulate in the city of Chengdu, the latest in a round of tit-for-tat measures as relations between the two powers deteriorate dramatically.

The move, which was in direct retaliation for the U.S. closing of the country's diplomatic post in Houston, came within hours of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declaring that America's decadeslong policy of engagement with China had failed.

"The measure taken by China is a legitimate and necessary response to the unjustified act by the United States," China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"The current situation in Chinese-U.S. relations is not what China desires to see. The United States is responsible for all this," the ministry said. "We once again urge the United States to immediately retract its wrong decision and create necessary conditions for bringing the bilateral relationship back on track."

Chengdu, in Sichuan province, is one of the biggest cities in western China. The U.S. consulate — opened in 1985 — covers the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, as well as the Tibet Autonomous Region.

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Pompeo's comments at the Nixon Library in southern California Thursday emphatically underscored the hardening U.S. stance.

He declared that the U.S. policy of engaging with China to try and induce change — which pointedly began with President Richard Nixon's first visit to the country in 1972 — had not worked.

"The kind of engagement we have been pursuing has not brought the change inside China that President Nixon hoped to induce," he said.

"Today, China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else," Pompeo added.

President Richard Nixon shakes hands with China's Mao Zedong in Beijing on Feb. 21, 1972. The meeting heralded a new era of U.S. engagement with China. AP file

Accusing the Chinese of stealing U.S. intellectual property and taking American jobs, Pompeo said the U.S. would now "act not on the basis of what Chinese leaders say, but how they behave."

Pompeo's remarks followed a series of speeches by Trump administration officials this week criticizing China as relations become increasingly strained on issues of trade, the COVID-19 pandemic, the South China Sea, Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

In a furious response to Pompeo's speech, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying accused him of "launching a new crusade" against China.

"Pompeo's speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library suggests that he wants to present himself as the John Foster Dulles of the 21st Century, launching a new crusade against China in a globalized world," she posted on Twitter, referring to the prominent midcentury American diplomat best know for his assertive stance toward communism and the Soviet Union.

"What he is doing is as futile as an ant trying to shake a tree," she added.

"It's unprecedented that senior officials in the Trump administration are increasingly targeting China's ruling party," Zhao Tong, a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, said.

"That's equal to seeking regime change in China, so that's viewed as the greatest U.S. hostility in decades," Zhao told NBC News.

The spat follows a week in which the State Department ordered China's consulate in Houston to be closed — a decision the Chinese called an "outrageous and unjustified" provocation. The State Department said it took the action to "protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information."

U.S. officials also announced charges against two Chinese researchers who they say lied about their ties to the Chinese military and the Communist Party when seeking visas to come to the U.S.

Tang Juan in military uniform.

The FBI said Tang Juan, who was working at the University of California, Davis, is evading arrest by staying at China's consulate in San Francisco. Earlier in the week, federal officials announced similar charges against Song Chen, a Stanford University researcher also is also accused of lying about her ties to the Chinese military.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced an indictment charging two Chinese nationals — both in China — with hacking governments, dissidents, human rights activists and private companies, including those engaged in COVID-19 vaccine research.

In a further indication of souring relations between the two countries, the State Department on Friday warned Americans in China to exercise "increased caution" due to a "heightened risk of arbitrary detention." Earlier in the week China issued a similar advisory for Chinese students in the U.S.

President Donald Trump has angered the Chinese by putting the blame for the coronavirus pandemic squarely on their shoulders, stoking tension by frequently referring to COVID-19 as the "China virus" and "kung flu."

Another flashpoint has been China's territorial claims over the South China Sea, which the U.S. and its allies view as unlawful. An article that appeared Friday in the Global Times — a Chinese outlet with strong ties to the ruling party — lashed out at the U.S. for continuing to conduct military exercises in the area. It accuses the Americans of trying to forge an alliance with countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom to "try and contain China."

Tensions have already been growing between China and other nations. Canada, Britain and Australia have all suspended extradition treaties with Hong Kong after China introduced a controversial new security law that Western powers claim violates the treaty that covered Britain's return of its former colony to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Britain and Canada have also clashed with China over the telecommunications company Huawei. After pressure from the U.S., Britain recently reversed a decision to allow Huawei a role in building the nation's 5G network, while China has clashed with Ottawa over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. warrant. Following the arrest, two Canadians were arrested in China and charged with spying.

China has its embassy in Washington and — in addition to Houston — consulates in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. The U.S. has its embassy in Beijing, and — in addition to Chengdu — has consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Shenyang. It also has a consulate in Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region.

CORRECTION (July 24, 2020, 12:25 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article included the wrong year for the opening of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. It was 1985, not 1983.

Jamie Knodel contributed.