Early in 1979 – just weeks after diplomatic ties were normalised between Beijing and Washington – China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping donned a cowboy hat at a rodeo west of Houston during his historic state visit to the United States.
Now, more than four decades later, Houston is where Washington has taken a drastic step in the nations’ eroding relations, demanding that the Chinese consulate general (CG) there – Beijing’s first in the US – be closed.
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The Chinese foreign ministry condemned Washington’s move as state media reported on Wednesday that the CG was given just three days to shut down after Washington made its demand on Monday.
On Tuesday night, local Houston news outlets released video apparently of documents being burned in the CG’s courtyard as police and fire officials responded to reports of smoke.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters that the Houston consulate had recently received bomb and death threats. The Chinese outlet The Paper reported on Wednesday that the consulate had to increase security after it received a bomb threat on Monday and threatening letters in recent days.
US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said on Tuesday that the directive to close the CG “had been made to protect American intellectual property and private information of its citizens”. The same day, the US Justice Department indicted two Chinese nationals for hacking defence contractors, Covid-19 vaccine researchers and other companies worldwide.
David Stilwell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, told The New York Times on Wednesday that the Houston consulate had been “at the epicentre” of subversive activities, including efforts by the People's Liberation Army to send students to US universities for its military advantage.
He said that the Houston consul general and two other Chinese diplomats were recently found “engaging in questionable activity”, with the diplomats found at the airport with paperwork that had false birth dates.
The closing comes as Beijing and Washington have sparred in recent months over issues of trade, technology, and China’s actions in the South China Sea, with tit-for-tat restrictions from both sides on their diplomats and journalists.
China’s consulate in Houston, the fourth largest city in the US, was the first of five Beijing opened in the country after relations were established in 1979, followed by ones in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
The Chinese delegation to Houston covers eight southern states in the US – Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida – as well as Puerto Rico.
China, which imports over 70 per cent of its oil, has huge trade interest in Texas, a state that is one of the largest exporters of crude oil in the US.
Under the phase-one trade agreement signed in January, China has agreed to buy US$18.5 billion more in US energy products in the first year and another US$33.9 billion in the second.
In recent years, Houston has found itself in the middle of US-China tensions when Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen made transit stops in the city in 2017 and 2018 en route to Central America. Also in 2017, a leading official in China’s space exploration programme was denied a US visa to attend a science conference just north of Houston.
The consulate also released a statement last August condemning Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association, for a Twitter post supportive of protests in Hong Kong.
In recent months, the consulate has worked to spread goodwill by donating masks and other supplies to local hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic.
Washington also maintains five consulates in China in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Chengdu, and Wuhan, as well as a CG for Hong Kong and Macau.
Chinese state media outlets have suggested that Beijing will order a US consulate in China to close, as retaliation for Washington’s closure of its Houston office.
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This article Houston consulate general offices a long-time landmark of US-China relations first appeared on South China Morning Post