Chinese authorities have taken over the US consulate general in Chengdu, marking the diplomatic mission’s official closure and a new low point in ties between the world’s largest economies.
At dawn on Monday, the American flag outside the consulate was lowered while police held back crowds that had gathered over the weekend to watch. At 10am, the mission was closed, according to China’s foreign ministry.
Chinese soldiers took up their posts outside the consulate, while teams of workers in hazmat suits and Chinese officials dressed in white short-sleeved dress shirts and black briefcases entered the mission. Workers draped grey clothes over signs bearing the consulate’s name.
“Competent Chinese authorities entered through the front entrance and took it over,” the foreign ministry said.
On Friday, China had ordered the closure in response to Washington’s order for the Chinese consulate in Houston to be shut, blaming the deterioration of US-China ties on Washington and urging the US to withdraw its decision.
Since Friday, residents have crowded the streets around the consulate, taking photos and waving Chinese flags as staff were ferried out of the compound. At least one lit firecrackers and another draped a huge Chinese flag from a balcony and shouted “China!” into the street. On Sunday, a worker hammered away at a plaque on the building’s wall for 20 minutes before leaving it.
On Monday, the closure was covered extensively by Chinese state media, with videos and photos from the scene. A graphic posted on Weibo by the People’s Daily transposed the Chinese characters “close” and “America”. Under the consulate’s latest post on Weibo, hundreds of users left jeering comments. “Pack up your stuff and get lost, Yankees,” said one. Another said: “For every ‘like,’ an American dies.”
Tensions between the two countries over trade and the coronavirus reached a new level last week when on Tuesday the US ordered China’s consulate in Texas closed, accusing Beijing of using it as a hub of espionage and intellectual property theft.
The targeting of diplomatic missions comes after retaliatory measures against journalists from both countries as well as sanctions on officials and trade as US-China frictions deepen over a range of issues from Huawei and human rights violations in Xinjiang, to Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.
The scene outside the Chengdu consulate over the weekend turned into a celebration of nationalism. Boos went up from the crowd when a bus with tinted windows left the consulate on Sunday. A video posted on social media showed one passerby launch into a nationalist chant before being silenced. Police were also seen confiscating a banner.
While residents most appeared jubilant, one bystander tearily told a reporter: “America and China should be friends.”
The US mission in China posted a video on Twitter of footage of the consulate’s history, since its opening in 1985 by then vice-president George HW Bush, with the message: “Today, we bid farewell to the US consulate general in Chengdu. We will forever miss you.”
The US has an embassy in Beijing as well as five consulates in mainland China – including the one in Chengdu – plus one in Hong Kong. The Chengdu consulate covered the country’s south-west, including – notably – Tibet, where authorities have overseen a severe crackdown. China’s foreign ministry has called the closure a “legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable measures by the United States”.
In 2013, China demanded a US explanation after news reports said a top-secret map leaked by fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden showed surveillance facilities at US embassies and consulates worldwide – including the mission in Chengdu.
Chinese nationalists have called for a more strident response from the authorities, such as the closure of the US consulate in Hong Kong, a move that would raise tensions further. The semi-autonomous city saw large, rolling pro-democracy protests last year and Beijing has frequently said it suspects the US of being behind the unrest.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said on Thursday the Chinese consulate in Houston was a “hub of spying and intellectual property theft”. The fourth-largest city in the US, Houston is a major global centre for medical and biological research.
Washington officials said attempts to steal secrets in those fields had grown too numerous to ignore.