Staff inside the Chinese embassy in Houston, Texas, have been caught burning papers and documents in a last minute rush after the US evicted China and ordered it close its consulate, accusing it of ramping up spying operations.
The announcement infuriated Beijing and dramatically escalating diplomatic tensions between the feuding superpowers, with China vowing to retaliate as the two countries squabble over a slew of issues ranging from trade to the coronavirus pandemic and China’s policies in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea.
Neighbours close to the Consulate General of China captured the video of staff purportedly burning the documents in the courtyard of the consulate, forcing a call to Texan police and fire officials in bizarre scenes where they were not formally allowed inside and forced to watch from the outside.
“You could just smell the paper burning,” a witness at the scene told KPRC 2, which noted, “people could be seen throwing things into the flaming bins.”
“But, all the firefighters were just surrounding the building. They couldn’t go inside.”
Just an hour later new footage emerged of staff hosing down the burning bins.
It came after the US made a swift announcement about the closure, with one Global Times journalist, Hu Xijin, calling the decision “a crazy move” to give China just 72 hours notice.
“We have directed the closure of PRC Consulate General Houston in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters during a visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Denmark.
She added that under the Vienna Convention, states “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs” of the receiving state, but there were no further details about the reasons behind the decision.
In another statement, the State Department said China has engaged in massive spying and influence operations throughout the United States for years.
“These activities have increased markedly in scale and scope over the past few years,” it said.
The Twitter feed of the Houston police force said smoke was observed after they received calls just after 8pm local time, but officers “were not granted access to enter the building”.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China was told that the consulate would have to close, calling it an “outrageous and unjustified move which will sabotage China-US relations”.
“China urges the US to immediately withdraw its wrong decision, or China will definitely take a proper and necessary response,” Wang said at a press briefing.
“It is a political provocation unilaterally launched by the US side, which seriously violates international law … and the bilateral consular agreement between China and the US.”
Experts say the closure is most likely linked to cyber espionage, when on Tuesday the US justice department accused China of attempting to hack labs working on COVID-19 vaccines and charged two men for acting as spies.
Just last week the US, UK and Canada accused Russia of attempting to steal similar research.
“It does appear that the closure of the consulate in Houston is tied to the indictment of individuals for cyber espionage in side the United States,” James Carafano from conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation told the BBC.
“We all know that embassies all over the word are friendly and use consulates for intelligence operations. And every country in the world at some point they draw the line. That’s what the US is doing here.
“This administration has been increasingly challenging China. Chinese policies have gotten more aggressive, and as they’ve gotten more aggressive, the United States has been more willing to respond to that.”
The Chinese Consulate in Houston was opened in 1979 — the first in the year the US and the People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations, according to its website.
The office covers eight southern US states — including Texas and Florida — and has nearly one million people in the area registered there.
There are five Chinese consulates in the US, as well as an embassy in Washington.
State-run tabloid the Global Times launched a poll on Twitter in English asking people to vote for which US consulate in China should be closed in response, including the ones in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Chengdu.
Twitter is blocked in mainland China.
The US has an embassy in Beijing, plus five consulates in mainland China and one in Hong Kong.
CHINESE EMBASSY IN HOUSTON ***BURNING DOCUMENTS*** – Japan Did Same Before Pearl Harbor Attack
22 July, 2020
The Chinese Embassy in Houston has suddenly begun BURNING DOCUMENTS. The smoke from the papers being burned was so thick, area neighbors called the fire department, which was forbidden to enter Embassy grounds.
The destruction of Diplomatic documents began after two Chinese nationals were Indicted for Espionage; stealing US Secrets about the Coronavirus Vaccine, Corporate secrets and state secrets. Japan engaged in similar burnings before Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.
The United States has ORDERED the Embassy to be closed and its staff are to LEAVE the United States within 72 Hours; by 4:00 PM this Friday!
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.
Besides its embassy in Beijing, the U.S. has five consulates in mainland China, according to its website. They are in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan and Shenyang.
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,” the statement from State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said.
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.
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.
Smoke could be seen and smelled from outside. Dozens of Houston first responders arrived at the scene but they did not go into the property.
“You could just smell the paper burning,” a witness at the scene said, “But, all the firefighters were just surrounding the building. They couldn’t go inside.”
A Houston police source said 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 show several open bins or containers with flames coming out of them. People could be seen throwing things into the flaming bins.
Hackers working with the Chinese government targeted firms developing vaccines for the coronavirus and stole hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property and trade secrets from companies across the world, the Justice Department said Tuesday
The indictment does not accuse the two Chinese defendants of actually obtaining the coronavirus research, but it does underscore the extent to which scientific innovation has been a top target for foreign governments and criminal hackers looking to know what American companies are developing during the pandemic. In this case, the hackers researched vulnerabilities in the computer networks of biotech firms and diagnostic companies that were developing vaccines and testing kits and researching antiviral drugs.
the indictment includes trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy charges against the hackers, former classmates at an electrical engineering college who prosecutors say worked together for more than a decade targeting high-tech companies in more than 10 countries.
The hackers, identified as Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi, provided an officer for a Chinese intelligence service with whom they worked email accounts and passwords belonging to clergymen, dissidents and pro-democracy activists who could then be targeted. The officer gave help of his own, providing malicious software after one of the hackers struggled to compromise the mail server of a Burmese human rights group.
The two defendants are not in custody, and federal officials conceded Tuesday that they were not likely to step foot in an American courtroom. But the indictment carries important symbolic and deterrence value for the Justice Department, which decided that publicly calling out the behavior was more worthwhile than waiting for the unlikely scenario in which the defendants would travel to the U.S. and risk arrest.
Senator Marco Rubio put it bluntly:
It is worth pointing out that in December, 1941, the Japanese Embassy began burning documents too, as seen in this photo from that year:
On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a sneak attack against our military base at Pearl Harbor, bringing the USA into World War 2.
The website of the US Embassy in China is blocked