US closes China's Houston consulate ‘to protect intellectual property’

The move comes amid heightened tension between the world's largest economies

A fire engine is seen outside Chinese consulate in Houston on July 21, 2020. Media reports in Houston said that authorities had responded to reports of a fire at the consulate. AP Photo
A fire engine is seen outside Chinese consulate in Houston on July 21, 2020. Media reports in Houston said that authorities had responded to reports of a fire at the consulate. AP Photo

US-Chinese tensions, already rising because of the coronavirus pandemic and crackdown in Hong Kong, ratcheted up another notch on Wednesday as the United States ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston within 72 hours.

China reacted angrily to the US move, which came a day after the unveiling of a US indictment of two Chinese nationals for allegedly hacking hundreds of companies worldwide.

"We're setting out clear expectations for how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to Denmark.

"And when they don't, we're going to take actions that protect American people, protect our security, our national security, and also protect our economy and jobs," Mr Pompeo said.

"President (Donald) Trump has said 'enough,'" Pompeo said. "We're not going to allow this to continue to happen."

Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the Vienna Convention says countries "have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs" of the receiving state.

“The United States will not tolerate the China'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 behaviour,” Ms Ortagus said without giving specific details.

Chinese Foreign Ministry representative Wang Wenbin condemned the move and said countermeasures would be taken if the US did not reverse the decision.

“The unilateral closure of China’s consulate general in Houston within a short period of time is an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China,” Mr Wang said.

Besides its embassy in Beijing, the US has five consulates in mainland China, according to its website. They are in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan and Shenyang.

Media reports in Houston said authorities had responded to reports of a fire at the Chinese Consulate. Witnesses said that people were burning paper in what appeared to be rubbish bins, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Police were told that occupants were given until 4pm on Friday to leave the property, the newspaper said.

Houston police said officers responded to a call at the Chinese Consulate at 3417 Montrose Blvd. Police said smoke was seen in an outdoor courtyard area but that officers were not allowed to enter the building.

The Chinese Consulate in Houston was opened in 1979 - the first in the year the United States and the People's Republic of China established diplomatic relations, according to its website.

The office covers eight southern US states - including Texas and Florida - and has nearly one million people in the area registered there.

There are five Chinese consulates in the United States, as well as an embassy in Washington.

State-run tabloid the Global Times launched a poll on Twitter asking people to vote for which US consulate in China should be closed in response, including the ones in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Chengdu.

The United States has an embassy in Beijing plus five consulates in mainland China and one in Hong Kong.

Updated: July 22, 2020 08:30 PM

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