US orders China to close Houston consulate

US orders China to close Houston consulate

Cites efforts to steal trade secrets

The Chinese consulate building in Houston. (Photo: Wiki commons)
The Chinese consulate building in Houston. (Photo: Wiki commons)

WASHINGTON: The United States has abruptly ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, accusing diplomats of aiding economic espionage and the attempted theft of scientific research.

China vowed to retaliate, calling the action illegal. Hours after the administration issued its order Tuesday, consulate employees burned papers in open metal barrels in a courtyard of the Houston building, prompting police and firefighters to rush to the area.

move comes as President Donald Trump’s campaign strategists, anxious about his failures on the pandemic, are pushing a comprehensive anti-China message in an appeal to Trump’s supporters.

It was unclear what had immediately prompted the crackdown on the consulate, which must close by Friday, although the State Department said China was directing "massive illegal spying and influence operations".

David Stilwell, who oversees policy for East Asia and the Pacific at the State Department, said in an interview that the Houston consulate had a history of engaging in “subversive behaviour” and was the epicenter of research theft in the United States.  

He cited one example: He said the consul general, Cai Wei, the top Chinese official there, and two other diplomats were caught using false identification to escort Chinese travelers May 31 to the gate area of a charter flight from George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Stilwell said that some of China’s attempted scientific thefts in the United States had accelerated over the last six months and could be related to efforts to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, although he presented no evidence.

A seven-page document compiled by U.S. law enforcement officials and obtained by The New York Times broadly outlined several FBI investigations linked to the Houston consulate. Those included attempts to illegally transfer medical research and other sensitive information from institutions in the area; talent recruitment plans to persuade more than 50 researchers, professors and academics in the area to turn over tightly held research or information to Chinese institutions; and the coercion of Chinese citizens in the United States whom the Chinese government has deemed as wanted fugitives to return to their homeland.

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