Trump administration officials provided further details Friday regarding their decision to close China’s consulate in Houston, claiming the diplomatic outpost was one of several across the country facilitating influence efforts that the U.S. government said veered into “the coercive or the covert.”
“The sum total of the Houston consulate’s activities went well over the line of what we’re willing to accept, and unless we disrupted it, it threatened to become even more aggressive in Houston and in other Chinese consulates nationwide,” a senior Justice Department official told reporters on a briefing call organized by the State Department.
The additional information about the consulate closure comes after the State Department announced Wednesday that it directed China to shutter its facility in Houston “in order to protect American intellectual property” and the “private information” of U.S. citizens.
The State Department also accused China of engaging “for years in massive illegal spying and influence operations throughout the United States against U.S. government officials and American citizens.”
Apart from the soon-to-be-closed consulate in Houston, an embassy in Washington, D.C., and an office at the United Nations, China currently maintains consulates in four other U.S. cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
On Friday, the senior Justice Department official referenced the DOJ’s Thursday announcement that four individuals had recently been charged with visa fraud “in connection with a scheme to lie about their status” as members of China’s People’s Liberation Army while conducting research in the U.S.
The official said Friday those individuals charged represented a “microcosm … of a broader network of individuals” in more than 25 U.S. cities who are “supported through the consulates here” and given “guidance on how to evade and obstruct our investigation.”
China’s consulates have also “promoted talent plan memberships” which can “create the incentives to steal intellectual property and otherwise create conflicts of interest,” and they serve as “bases of operations for Fox Hunt teams,” the official said — referring to squads of Chinese agents deployed to the U.S. “to coerce economic fugitives” of Beijing into returning to China.
Other troubling behaviors enabled by the Chinese consulates include the “direct lobbying of state and local officials as well as businesspeople to favor Chinese interests” — which sometimes “takes a turn toward the coercive or the covert” — and supporting “nationalist counter-demonstrators” rallying against pro-Hong Kong democracy activists on campuses, the official said.
The administration’s sudden order Wednesday for Chinese officials to clear out of the Houston facility was met Friday with Beijing’s demand for American personnel to close their own consulate in the western city of Chengdu, a seemingly reciprocal maneuver against the U.S. government’s presence in China.
But a senior State Department official insisted Friday that “these are two totally different things,” saying of the U.S. consulate closure in Chengdu: “You’re going to have to ask them about how they picked that.”
The official did suggest, however, that the latest Chinese action was intended to send a signal to Tibet, the Himalayan region China claims as part of its territory. “I will note that activity in Chengdu … it’s about understanding and messaging [to] the Chinese people and especially the people in that district, which includes Tibet.”
The diplomatic back-and-forth this week between Washington and Beijing marks yet another deterioration of the relationship between the world’s two most powerful economies.
China and the U.S. have feuded in recent months over a variety of issues including China’s strict new security law for Hong Kong, a breakdown in trade negotiations and President Donald Trump’s criticism of President Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo excoriated China in a high-profile speech on Thursday, decrying its ruling Communist Party as a dishonest global actor presiding over a brutal domestic regime. “What do the American people have to show now 50 years on from engagement with China?” he asked.