The Chinese consulate in the Texas city of Houston was closed down on Friday, a U.S. State Department official confirmed, as Beijing complied with an order from the Trump administration.
Local media in Houston reported that U.S. officials entered the premises shortly after a deadline to shut down imposed by Washington, which accused Beijing’s diplomats of aiding economic espionage amid rising tensions between the two countries.
The Houston Chronicle reported that a back door of the building had been broken open 40 minutes after the evacuation deadline, while CNN reported that security forces entered the premises after Chinese diplomats had left.
Earlier this week, the United States ordered Chinese diplomats to clear the facility by the end of the day on Friday.
A senior U.S. Justice Department official told reporters in a Friday telephone briefing that the Houston facility “was not a random selection” for closure.
The official said there had been “an increase in malign activity,” such as consulate staff guiding researchers on what information to steal from a Texas research institution, among other actions.
“The sum total of the Houston consulate’s activities went well over the line of what we’re willing to accept. Unless we disrupted it, it threatened to become even more aggressive in Houston and at other Chinese consulates nationwide,” the official said.
On Thursday, the Justice Department announced it had charged four Chinese researchers with visa fraud for allegedly concealing ties to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) when applying for student visas in the U.S.
“One of those individuals was a fugitive of justice until last night, having received sanctuary in the San Francisco consulate,” the department official told reporters on Friday.
“The defendant is in custody and I expect she’ll make her initial appearance in court later today,” it added.
The FBI had already arrested the three other individuals.
The four researchers were a “microcosm” of a broader network of visa holders suspected of having undeclared affiliation with the Chinese military in more than 25 U.S. cities, the official said.
The network was supported through China’s consulates in the country.
In another move in Washington’s crackdown against alleged spying by Beijing, a Singaporean national pleaded guilty to acting as an illegal agent of the Chinese intelligence services to obtain sensitive information for Beijing, the Justice Department said.
The U.S. alleges the person acted at the direction of China in targeting U.S. government employees and an army officer to gain intelligence, and worked as a recruiter, trying to get others in the U.S. to act on behalf of Chinese intelligence.
The charges carry a possible jail sentence of up to 10 years.
The Justice Department also recently charged China with supporting two hackers who targeted tech companies around the world for years.
They were alleged to have been developing plans to attack firms working on a COVID-19 vaccine.
In retaliation to Washington’s move to shutter Beijing’s Houston facility, China ordered the closure of the U.S. consulate in the south-western city of Chengdu, accusing personnel at the diplomatic mission of interfering in the country’s internal affairs.
“We urge the (Chinese Communist Party) to cease these malign actions rather than engage in tit-for-tat retaliation,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told a press conference.
Relations between Washington and Beijing have been tense since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, initially largely over trade and intellectual property disputes, but have spiralled downward as the coronavirus pandemic worsened.
Besides the outbreak, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, the two countries are also sparring over Hong Kong’s autonomy, the treatment of ethnic minorities in China’s western Xinjiang region and Beijing’s military expansion in the South China Sea.
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