Reopening of China consulate in Houston would be up to the US, former envoy says

Sarah Zheng
·3-min read

The former head of China’s closed consulate in Houston has said the onus for its reopening is on the US, which shut down the mission in July over spying allegations.

Li Qiangmin, consul general in Houston from 2014 to 2019, said China’s reciprocal closure of the US consulate in Chengdu had been a “passive response” to the move by Washington, during a panel discussion at last week’s Trans-Pacific Future Forum hosted by Phoenix Television.

According to a transcript of his remarks published on Tuesday by Phoenix Media, Li quoted a Chinese idiom in response to a question over the potential reopening of the Houston mission. “There is a foundation for restoration but, to have this, there is a Chinese saying: to untie the bell you first need the person who tied it.” Essentially, the person who caused the problem must fix it.

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The US ordered the Houston consulate to shut down with 72 hours’ notice in July, as relations frayed between the major powers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it a “hub of spying and intellectual property theft”.

US officials accused the consulate of being a “particularly aggressive source of malign activity” and claimed the mission helped Chinese agents conceal their military affiliations and sought to steal intellectual property from research institutions and companies in Texas.

Beijing rejected the allegations of “subversive behaviour” as “preposterous” and said claims that Chinese diplomats acted as spies were “made up out of thin air”. In retaliation, it closed the US consulate in Chengdu.

Li said at the forum he believed there were several reasons the Houston consulate was closed, including its symbolic importance as the first of five Chinese missions opened in the US after relations were established in 1979.

The Chinese delegation to Houston, fourth largest city in the US, covered eight southern states – Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida – as well as Puerto Rico. Li said a factor in the closure was that these states leaned Republican.

Other Chinese consulates are located in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

“Out of the five consulates in the US, only the Texas consulate was in an area that is basically all red, which is to say there is a big camp of Republican Party supporters – although this year was different because Georgia turned from red to blue,” he said.

“To be against China, to contain China and restrict China, the US government used more hardline, boorish and brutal measures to create more of a reaction among Republicans.”

Li said the Houston mission had “maintained close contact” with local political heavyweights, including former presidents George H.W. Bush, his son George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.

“Our consulate, under the guidance of China and the foreign ministry, and in particular under the direction of the Chinese embassy in the US, did work that was more in touch with the common people, which sparked their unhappiness and dissatisfaction,” he said.

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