Secrets of the Houston Consulate—The China Angle with Simone Gao
Zooming InFiona Yang

Hello, welcome to The China Angle. I’m Simone Gao.

The US-China showdown has seen a new development since our last episode of the China Angle. On July 22, the US ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas. Staff there have 72 hours to leave or they will face arrest. The State Department said that the closure was ordered “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”

The news came in as a fire broke out at the Chinese consulate in Houston on the night of July 21. A drone video sent to a local news station showed several open fire pits in the courtyard. Houston police later confirmed that the consulate officials were burning documents in the courtyard upon learning of the conviction.

Interestingly, the announcement of the closure came one day after the Justice Department indicted two Chinese hackers on charges of trying to steal research into a coronavirus vaccine. On July 22, Senator Marco Rubio echoed the urgency of this order in a Fox interview:

“The Chinese consulate in Houston is a massive spy center for the Chinese Communist Party and forcing it to close is long overdue.”

If it’s long overdue, why didn’t the US act earlier? Senator Rubio did not specify what exactly prompted the closure, but his claim was corroborated by David Stilwell, who oversees policy for East Asia and the Pacific at the State Department. Stilwell said the Houston consul general 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 as the “epicenter” of research theft by the Chinese military in the US.

It’s true that Chinese IP theft has gone on for years. POTUS himself has repeatedly condemned this behavior, which has cost the US economy billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs every year. But nothing remotely as severe as the closing of a Chinese consulate had been carried out until now. Historically, such closures have almost always been done in retaliation to foreign aggressions that seriously undermined the country’s national security. If that is true, what could have prompted the US to act this time? Is it really intelligence theft? Or is the US onto something bigger?

In fact, there’s something noteworthy about the announcement made by State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus. Ortagus’ statement leaves many questions unanswered, including: What exactly did she mean by “the Chinese officials interfering in America’s internal affairs”? What did the Chinese regime do to violate America’s sovereignty and intimidate its people, which America cannot and will not tolerate? How is the Houston consulate different from other Chinese consulates, which have been involved in espionage for decades? Today, we sat down with Chen Yong-lin, Beijing’s first secretary and consul for political affairs in Sydney, who defected in 2005. We discussed this issue, why the US ordered the shutdown with such urgency, and what the US intends to accomplish.

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