WASHINGTON -- The United States ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, and Beijing denounced the order Wednesday as "outrageous" and said it would draw a firm response if not reversed.
The State Department said that it ordered the consulate closed within 72 hours after alleging that Chinese agents have tried to steal data from facilities in Texas, including the Texas A&M medical system statewide and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
David Stilwell, who oversees policy for East Asia and the Pacific at the State Department, said some of China's attempted scientific thefts in the United States had accelerated over the past six months, and could be related to efforts to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus.
He said the Houston consul general, the top Chinese official there, and two other diplomats were recently caught having used false identification to escort Chinese travelers to the gate area of a charter flight in George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Stilwell described the Houston consulate, which he said "has a history of engaging in subversive behavior," as the "epicenter" of research theft by the Chinese military in the United States, without giving details to support that assertion.
The consulate in Houston has about 60 employees.
The physical closure of the consulate, one of China's six missions in the United States, marked another step in increasingly contentious relations that have been strained not only by the coronavirus pandemic but disputes over trade, human rights, Hong Kong and Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Previous Trump administration measures against Chinese officials, students and researchers have included travel bans, registration requirements and other steps intended to reduce the country's footprint in the United States. The administration also has announced its rejection of virtually all Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea.
President Donald Trump has sought to blame China for the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., where cases have soared. Trump himself said more closures could be coming if China doesn't change its behavior. "It's always possible," he told reporters at the White House.
There were indications consulate workers were preparing to leave: Papers were being burned on the consulate grounds late Tuesday -- a common practice when a diplomatic post is being shuttered on short notice.
Cai Wei, the Chinese consul general, told KTRK-TV in Houston that the order to shut down was "quite wrong" and "very damaging" to U.S.-China relations.
Asked about accusations of espionage and stealing data, Cai said, "You have to give some evidence, say something from the facts. ... Knowing Americans, you have the rule of law, you are not guilty until you are proved guilty."
The Trump administration ordered the consulate's closure "to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday.
"The United States will not tolerate the PRC's violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated the PRC's unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs and other egregious behavior," she said, using the abbreviation for China's official name, the People's Republic of China.Gallery: U.S. orders China to close Houston consulate
Testifying before Congress on Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun lamented that relations today are "weighed down by a growing number of disputes," including commercial espionage, intellectual-property theft and unequal treatment of diplomats, businesses and journalists.
Those factors led to Trump's action, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Department of Justice on Tuesday had announced the indictments of two Chinese hackers on charges of trying to steal pharmaceutical secrets from U.S. companies related to the coronavirus pandemic that originated in China. Although there was no indication the indictments and the consulate action were related, the U.S. has long alleged China is involved in nefarious activity around the country, including from its Houston consulate.
The FBI is investigating clandestine Chinese activity in American research institutions, a law enforcement official said. Officers with the Chinese military have entered the United States masquerading as doctors and medical researchers and embedding with universities, research facilities and pharmaceutical companies, the official said.
On Monday, for example, federal authorities arrested a Chinese woman who had claimed to be a neurologist heading to California to conduct brain disease research at Stanford University.
In reality, she is affiliated with the Chinese air force, according to the Justice Department.
Last month, U.S. authorities arrested a Chinese scientific researcher as he tried to fly out of Los Angeles. According to court documents, he said the head of his military university lab had ordered him to observe a lab at the University of California in San Francisco, and relay information so it could be replicated in China.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the consulate a "central node of the Communist Party's vast network of spies" and said that closing it "needed to happen."
Even before the U.S. announced the closure, which was conveyed privately to the Chinese ambassador on Tuesday, China strongly condemned it.
"The unilateral closure of China's consulate general in Houston within a short period of time is an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said. He warned of firm countermeasures if the U.S. does not reverse itself.
Wang accused the U.S. of opening Chinese diplomatic pouches without permission multiple times, confiscating Chinese items for official use and imposing restrictions on Chinese diplomats beginning last October and again in June. He also said that U.S. diplomats in China engage in infiltration activities.
"For some time, the United States government has been shifting the blame to China with stigmatization and unwarranted attacks against China's social system, harassing Chinese diplomatic and consular staff in America, intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and confiscating their personal electrical devices, even detaining them without cause," he said.
In Houston, firefighters responded to reports of papers being burned on the consulate grounds Tuesday night but were barred entry. On Wednesday afternoon, consulate staff members could be seen loading cleaning supplies and paper products into a van parked outside the building. A U-Haul truck was parked outside the consulate.
First responders "were told that people inside the consulate, that they were burning paperwork because they were in the process of being evacuated from the building," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
NEW COLD WAR
Foreign diplomatic missions operate under legal immunities accorded by international law and may not be entered without permission. However, the destruction of confidential documents at a facility that has been ordered or otherwise forced to close on short notice, including U.S. missions, is not unusual.
Most recently in the United States, Russia's consulate in San Francisco made news for burning large amounts of material when it was ordered closed in 2017.
Aside from the diplomatic ramifications, the closure of the Houston consulate will make it more difficult for China to provide assistance to its citizens in the southern United States and for Americans seeking visas and other services there.
Robert Ross, a Boston College political scientist who is on the National Committee for U.S.-China Relations, said the countries seem to be barreling toward a new trans-Pacific Cold War.
"I think the administration would like to fully decouple from China," he said. "No trade, no cultural exchanges, no political exchanges, no cooperation on anything that resembles common interests. It would look like the U.S.-Soviet Cold War."
In addition to its embassy in Washington and its mission to the United Nations in New York, China has consulates in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In an apparent bid to stave off the reciprocal closure of an American diplomatic mission in China, the State Department told the Chinese that it would not reopen its consulate in Wuhan, according to two U.S. officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. consulate in Wuhan was shuttered in late January at the height of the coronavirus outbreak that started there, but the State Department had informed Congress in early June that it planned to reopen it, possibly this summer.
Besides Wuhan, the U.S. has four other consulates in China -- in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenyang -- along with its embassy in Beijing and a consulate-general in Hong Kong.
POMPEO WEIGHS IN
In a reflection of China's economic importance, a Houston business group expressed regret at the announcement, saying the consulate has been important in building trade, investment and cultural ties. It noted that the Houston consulate was China's first in the U.S. when it opened in 1979.
At a news conference in Copenhagen, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that European intellectual property had also been stolen, "costing hundreds of thousands of jobs -- good jobs for hardworking people all across Europe and America stolen by the Chinese Communist Party."
"We are setting out clear expectations for how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave, and when they don't, we're going to take actions that protect the American people, protect our security, our national security, and also protect our economy and jobs," he added.
Information for this article was contributed by Ken Moritsugu, Matthew Lee and Juan Lozano of The Associated Press; by Edward Wong, Lara Jakes and Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times; and by Anna Fifield, Carol Morello, Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris, John Hudson, Liu Yang and Lyric Li of The Washington Post.