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Fire at the China consulate in Houston: These are the most important things to know about the story

HOUSTON, TX - JULY 22: The Chinese consulate building is seen 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: The Chinese consulate building is seen 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)

HOUSTON – The U.S. has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, and just hours after, there were reports that documents were being burned in the Houston facility’s courtyard.

What happened?

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

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.

What’s with burning papers?

It’s unclear at this time why papers were being burned at the consulate hours after the United States ordered China to close the Houston consulate. However, it may have been a matter of security.

“Any time a foreign ministry staff has to leave a physical location, their responsibility is to make sure there aren’t any files or information left behind,” Hans Stockton, The University of St. Thomas Dean of the Division of Social and Behavioral and Global Studies, told KPRC 2′s Rose-Ann Aragon. “This is common to any consular or embassy staff having to leave a location as quickly as this one.”

Others, however, suggest a different cause. 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.”

Official word from the U.S. on the matter

Citing President Trump, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the United States’ closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston on Wednesday morning, saying in Denmark that the US would “take actions that protect the American people, protect our security, our national security.”

Who are the big players?

Since the reported fire, the consulate has closed and American officials have shared their thoughts on the matter, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio who called the consulate a spy center.

China has also sounded off on the matter. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin condemned the U.S. order to close the consulate in Houston, 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.

What does a consulate do?

Consulates provide passport, birth registration and many other services for visiting or resident Chinese citizens in a country. They also have consular sections which issue visas for foreign citizens to visit, study and work in the United States. Consulates also work to combat international crime.

The Chinese Consulate General in Houston, according to its website, covers a consular jurisdiction of eight American Southern states -- Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida -- and Puerto Rico.

What’s happening at the consulate now?

The consulate is currently closed. People were photographed Wednesday morning 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)
HOUSTON, TX - JULY 22: A fire truck is seen outside of 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: A fire truck is seen outside of 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)
HOUSTON, TX - JULY 22: The Chinese consulate building is seen 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: The Chinese consulate building is seen 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)

What’s at stake?

U.S.-China relations were already on the rocks due to repeated finger-pointing following the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States’ leadership, and particularly President Trump, have claimed China is to blame for the virus getting out of control in the world.

The Commerce Department sanctioned 11 Chinese companies this week 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.

Prior to the pandemic, the United States and China have faced serious back-and-forth feuding particularly over theft of intellectual property. A Houston institution, MD Anderson Cancer Center was, in recent years, at the center of this issue with three scientists ousted over intellectual property involving “foreign influence.”

This latest development in a history of mistrust could make a bad situation even worse. But the U.S. and China remain dependent in so many ways, but particularly through trade. As a 2017 report by the nonprofit group The US-China Business Council notes, the relationship between the two countries “supports roughly 2.6 million jobs in the United States across a range of industries, including jobs that Chinese companies have created in America.”

Thinking globally, the closure of the consulate could make discussion between the United States and China very strained at best.

Locally, the situation could make life in the United States difficult for people in the country from China seeking mundane, but important documentation, such as passports. For Americans seeking visas to China, the consulate’s closure could be an issue, but not likely in the short-term. China has banned all U.S. travelers and all Chinese travelers have been banned from the U.S.

What’s next?

If recent rhetoric about China is considered a pattern, U.S.-China relations will likely continue to be strained. But how far can it go before everything breaks down? Perhaps not much further.

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


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