Protesters hold a banner across the street from the Consulate General of China Friday, July 24, 2020, in Houston. The U.S.government has ordered the Houston consulate to close by Friday, and in retaliation the Chinese government has ordered the American consulate in Chengdu to close. Credit: Brett Coomer | Houston Chronicle via AP

BEIJING — China ordered the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu on Friday in retaliation for the U.S. shutdown of China’s consulate in Houston.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying the U.S. had “seriously breached international law” and that the Chinese move was a “legitimate and necessary response” that conformed to international law and norms.

“The current situation in China-U.S. relations is not what China desires to see, and the U.S. is responsible for all this,” the statement said. “We once again urge the U.S. to immediately retract its wrong decision and create necessary conditions for bringing the bilateral relationship back on track.”

It is the latest turn in a dizzying downward spiral in relations between the world’s two largest economies, once closely intertwined but now with their governments increasingly at odds. The countries have sparred in recent months over trade, tech, student and journalist visas, the coronavirus, human rights, Taiwan, Tibet, the South China Sea, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

But the consulate closures are a step further toward diplomatic disengagement, which could enable a dangerous slide into outright conflict.

China’s decision came hours after a speech Thursday by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, in which he said the “engagement” policy that had defined U.S.-China relations for the past 50 years — since President Nixon famously went to China — was over.

“We must admit a hard truth,” Pompeo said. “If we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which (Chinese President) Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it and we must not return to it.”

The U.S. gave orders to the Chinese consulate in Houston on Tuesday to close by Friday, an abrupt decision that was first heralded by local news reports in Texas that firefighters had responded to a call about people burning documents at the consulate.

Pompeo said the Houston consulate was ordered to close because it was a “hub of spying and intellectual property theft.” The Associated Press reported that the Trump administration has alleged attempts by Chinese agents to steal data from facilities in Texas, including the Texas A&M medical system.

As of Thursday, the Chinese consulate in Houston had not yet closed. Cai Wei, the consul general, told the Politico news site that China was protesting the order and would remain open “until further notice.”

Meanwhile, U.S. prosecutors say that a UC Davis cancer researcher accused of being a secret member of the Chinese military is hiding from the FBI in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. The researcher, Juan Tang, is one of several Chinese scientists who have recently been charged with visa fraud for allegedly concealing ties to the People’s Liberation Army, according to court filings.

President Trump said at a news briefing earlier this week that the closure of more Chinese missions in the United States is “always possible.”

China shot back Friday with its own accusations of covert activity by U.S. diplomats. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin said some personnel at the Chengdu consulate had taken part in “activities that do not match their identities, interfering in China’s internal affairs and harming China’s security interests.”

China had raised the issue multiple times with the U.S., Wang said. “Diplomacy is about reciprocity,” he added.

Pompeo’s speech evoked aggressive Cold War rhetoric, comparing China under the Chinese Communist Party to the Soviet Union and calling for an “alliance of democracies” to confront what he called Xi’s “decades-long desire for global hegemony of Chinese communism.”

He also said that China’s businesses, its military and many of its students and workers were “not normal” and should not be trusted.

“We can’t treat this incarnation of China as a normal country, just like any other,” Pompeo said, adding that he had done military service during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. “And if there is one thing I learned, communists almost always lie.”

The speech and the Trump administration’s overall ramping up of pressure on China come at a time when the president’s popularity is at a low after his failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Weeks of mass protests over systemic racism and police brutality have turned into face-offs between demonstrators and armed federal forces in several U.S. cities.

Both Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden have enlarged campaigning on the theme of being “tough on China” as the November election approaches, making de-escalation difficult.

For its part, China is facing economic crisis, mass unemployment, catastrophic floods, diplomatic tensions with several other countries and small clusters of COVID-19 cases that continue to pop up, though the outbreak is reportedly under control overall in the Middle Kingdom.

The Communist government’s response has been to crack down on dissent, tightening controls on speech and education, and to amplify nationalistic propaganda. State media have broadcast nightly condemnations of Pompeo and other U.S. politicians, accusing them of meddling in China’s “internal affairs” and asserting that China will not be bullied.

The Chengdu consulate is the westernmost U.S. consulate in China, based in the capital of Sichuan province, which borders Tibet. It is also the closest consulate to Xinjiang, the far-western province where China has detained at least a million Muslim-minority Uighurs in concentration camps and then moved many of them into either jails or forced labor in factories and cotton fields, according to extensive research and reports by human rights organizations and foreign media outlets.

China calls its camps “re-education” programs to counter extremism and terrorism, and calls its forced labor vocational training and poverty alleviation. Human rights groups and survivors of the camps and their relatives say these programs amount to attempted genocide.

The four remaining U.S. consulates in mainland China are in Shanghai, Shenyang, Guangzhou and Wuhan. There is also a U.S. consulate in Hong Kong.

The State Department issued a security alert to U.S. citizens in China on Friday afternoon, warning them of heightened risk of arbitrary detention without access to U.S. consular services, prolonged interrogations, exit bans, and potential detention or deportation for sending “private electronic messages critical of the (Chinese) government.”

The remaining Chinese consulates in the U.S. are in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Story by Alice Su.

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