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US orders China to close Houston consulate amid swirling accusations of espionage, theft

China has vowed to retaliate after what they call an 'unprecedented escalation' of the US's actions against China

HOUSTON – The U.S. has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston in what a Chinese official called an outrageous and unjustified move that will sabotage relations between the two countries.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin condemned the action, which comes at a time of rising tensions between the world’s two largest economies. He warned of firm countermeasures if the U.S. does not reverse its decision.

“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,” Wang said at a daily news briefing.

WATCH: Videos show flames, activity in courtyard of Consulate General of China in Houston

The U.S. said in a brief statement that the consulate was ordered closed “to protect American intellectual property and American’s private information.” It did not provide any details.

“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. President Trump insists on fairness and reciprocity in U.S.-China relations,” said Morgan Ortagus, a State Department spokesperson. “We have directed the closure of PRC Consulate General Houston, in order to protect American intellectual property and American’s private information.”

During a coronavirus press briefing, President Donald Trump was asked if he would close more Chinese “embassies.”

EXPLAINED: Most important things to know about what’s going on with the Consulate General of China in Houston

“As far as closing additional embassies, it’s always possible,” Trump said. “You see what’s going on, we thought there was a fire in the one that we did close and everybody said ‘There’s a fire! There’s a fire!’ But I guess they were burning documents or burning papers and I wonder what that’s all about.”

The Houston consulate is one of six Chinese diplomatic missions in the U.S., including the embassy in Washington, D.C. and consulates in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

What happened?

Tuesday night, Houston police and fire officials responded to reports that documents were being burned in the courtyard of the Consulate General of China in Houston.

HPD said they began receiving reports that documents were being burned just after 8 p.m. at 3417 Montrose Boulevard where the consulate is located.

A small amount of smoke could be seen and smelled from outside. Dozens of Houston first responders arrived at the scene but they were not allowed on the property as they did not have jurisdiction.

“You could just smell the paper burning,” a witness at the scene told KPRC 2. “But, all the firefighters were just surrounding the building. They couldn’t go inside.”

A Houston police source told KPRC 2 that the consulate and a compound on Almeda Road, where many employees of the consulate live, are being evicted on Friday at 4 p.m.

Videos shared by a viewer who lives next to the consulate show several open bins or containers with flames coming out of them. People could be seen throwing things into the flaming bins.

The consulate was closed Wednesday but people were photographed looking at signs outside the main facility that announced that the building was shuttered.

HOUSTON, TX - JULY 22: People try to gain access to the Chinese consulate after the United States ordered China to close its doors on July 22, 2020 in Houston, Texas.  According to the State Department, the U.S. government ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate "in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information."  (Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - JULY 22: People try to gain access to the Chinese consulate after the United States ordered China to close its doors on July 22, 2020 in Houston, Texas. According to the State Department, the U.S. government ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate "in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information." (Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images) (2020 Getty Images)

Accusations of espionage and theft

A New York Times report cites David R. Stilwell, who oversees policy for East Asia and the Pacific at the State Department. He noted that China attempted thefts have increased in the past six months and that 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. He 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.”

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, a senior member of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed with Stilwell’s comment.

“The CCP’s recent targeting of U.S. coronavirus vaccine research underscores the threat of this consulate’s malign activity in Houston, a biomedical research and technology hub itself. I am hopeful this action will deal a significant blow to the CCP’s spy network in the U.S. and send a clear message that their widespread espionage campaigns will no longer go unchecked,” he said in part in a statement.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is the acting chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted that China’s Houston consulate was a “massive spy center,” and that closing it was “long overdue.”

In a speech last week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr described China’s actions as an economic attack.

“Chinese nationals working as employees at pharma companies have been caught stealing trade secrets both in America and in China,” Barr said at the time.

The Associated Press reported that the State Department said it ordered the consulate to close within 72 hours after alleging that Chinese agents have tried to steal data from the Texas A&M medical system statewide and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

China’s reaction

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 in the U.S. last October and again in June. He also said that U.S. diplomats in China engage in infiltration activities.

“If we compare the two, it is only too evident which is engaged in interference, infiltration and confrontation,” Wang said.

He also said that the Chinese Embassy in Washington has received bomb and death threats, and accused the U.S. government of fanning hatred against China.

President Donald Trump has blamed China repeatedly for the pandemic. Almost every day, his administration has brought fresh action against what Trump has called the rising Asian superpower’s exploitation of America.

Already this week, the Commerce Department has sanctioned 11 Chinese companies over alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region and the Justice Department said two Chinese stole intellectual property and targeted companies developing coronavirus vaccines.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to continue the attacks Thursday in a speech on U.S.-China relations at the Nixon Library in California.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, saying U.S.-China relations face their most severe challenge since diplomatic ties were established in 1979, asked recently if the two nations would be able to stay the course after a more than four-decade voyage.

KPRC 2′s Amanda Cochran contributed to this report.