CHENGDU, China — After 35 years, the U.S.'s official presence in China's Chengdu ended on Monday with the lowering of the American flag over the consulate in the southwestern city.
China took over the premises of the consulate in retaliation for a U.S. order to close the Chinese consulate in Houston last week. The move comes after months of escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington over a range of issues, including trade, technology, security and human rights.
The American flag was taken down at 6:18 a.m. local time (6:18 p.m. ET), state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Earlier, a bus left the consulate grounds and what appeared to be embassy staff spoke with plainclothes police before retreating back behind the property's solid black gates. It wasn’t clear who or what was on the bus. Three medium-sized trucks arrived and left a few hours later, and cars with diplomatic plates departed in between.
Plaques and insignia were removed from the consulate building over the weekend.
As the consulate shut its doors, local authorities closed off streets in the vicinity of the complex, but that didn't stop crowds of spectators from packing the area around the building for days as the deadline approached for American diplomats to clear out.
On Monday, one man yelled “Long live the Communist Party and the Chinese people,” but police pushed him away and took his sign.
A man in an apartment block across the street waved a Chinese flag and shouted, “long live China.”
A statement from the State Department expressed disappointment at China’s decision to shut down the consulate and said the U.S. would try to continue its outreach to the region through its other missions in China.
The consulate in southwestern China “has stood at the center of our relations with the people in Western China, including Tibet, for 35 years,” the statement said.
On Monday, a video message shared by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Chinese social media site Weibo bid farewell to the consulate in Chengdu, saying: "We will miss you forever."
“We will miss the people of Southwest China and the friendship we have established,” Consul General in Chengdu, Jim Mullinax, was quoted as saying in a separate tweet by the U.S. Mission in China.
The U.S. has alleged that the Trump administration's decision to close China's consulate in Houston came after years of FBI intelligence-gathering showed it was a hot spot of Chinese spying in the U.S.
China said the allegations were “malicious slander," and called the U.S. decision to shut down its consulate in Houston an "outrageous and unjustified move which will sabotage China-U.S. relations."
President Donald Trump has regularly clashed with China over trade, accusing the country of taking advantage of the U.S.
The president has further angered the Chinese by blaming the coronavirus pandemic on China, and frequently refers to COVID-19 as the "China virus" and "kung flu."
Hong Kong has proved to be another flashpoint with the administration angering China by siding with pro-democracy protesters in the former British colony. The U.S. has also joined the U.K., Australia and Canada in suspending an extradition treaty with the territory following the imposition of a controversial new security law by the Chinese government.
Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Chengdu. Yuliya Talmazan from London.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.