The US consulate in Chengdu is not the largest of America’s six missions in the country and that may be the reason Beijing selected it for closure, according to observers.
As well as an embassy in Beijing, the US has five consulates in mainland China – the others being in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Shenyang.
Similarly, China has five consulates in the US and an embassy in Washington. The Houston mission, which the US ordered to close on Tuesday – handles consular affairs for the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas – is also one of its smallest.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
The Chengdu consulate opened in 1985 – making it the second youngest after Wuhan, which opened in 2008. It has five departments and employs 130 people, 100 of whom were locally hired, according to its website.
Located in the capital of Sichuan province, the office manages all of the United States’ consular and diplomatic affairs in southwest China, which encompasses the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, Chongqing municipality and the Tibet autonomous region.
Beijing said the order to close the consulate was a “legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable measures by the United States”, after Washington on Tuesday told the Chinese consulate in Houston to shut within 72 hours. The clock runs out on Friday.
Beijing most likely chose Chengdu because of its smaller size, so that it could make a point without adding too much fuel to the fire burning between the two countries, observers said.
The region covered by the mission is also home to fewer US businesses and citizens than most of America’s other consulates in China.
“The Chinese side is still trying not to escalate the tension too rapidly,” said Li Haidong, a professor of international relations at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.
Although China’s southwestern provinces are less economically developed than other parts of the country they still have great political significance.
Almost all of China’s ethnic Tibetans live in the region and the consulate is the closest Washington has to a mission in Lhasa. Beijing has repeatedly turned down US requests to open a consulate in the Tibetan capital.
In 2013, the consulate in Chengdu was one of the overseas missions revealed by fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden as having surveillance facilities. Beijing protested and demanded an explanation.
A year earlier, in one of China’s biggest political scandals of recent years, the Chengdu consulate provided temporary shelter to Wang Lijun, the former police chief and vice mayor of Chongqing, who was trying to flee from his boss Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing and a contender for the country’s top leadership at the time.
That set off China’s biggest political crisis in decades, leading to the imprisonment of Wang, Bo and the latter’s wife, Gu Kailai, on a range of charges, including corruption and abuse of power.
Purchase the 120+ page China Internet Report 2020 Pro Edition, brought to you by SCMP Research, and enjoy a 30% discount (original price US$400). The report includes deep-dive analysis, trends, and case studies on the 10 most important internet sectors. Now in its 3rd year, this go-to source for understanding China tech also comes with exclusive access to 6+ webinars with C-level executives, including Charles Li, CEO of HKEX, James Peng, CEO/founder of Pony.ai, and senior executives from Alibaba, Huawei, Kuaishou, Pinduoduo, and more. Offer valid until 31 August 2020. To purchase, please click here.
More from South China Morning Post:
- ‘Americans were interfering in China’s domestic affairs’: Beijing justifies closing US Chengdu consulate
- China ‘set to shut US consulate’ in response to Houston closure, and denies Covid-19 is a factor
- Are China-US relations drifting closer towards war?
This article China’s decision to close US consulate in Chengdu likely driven by size, observers say first appeared on South China Morning Post