Chinese authorities on Monday took control of the building that hosted the American consulate in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, at a time of growing tensions between the world’s two largest economies.
The Chinese regime ordered the mission to be closed in retaliation for the U.S. decision to close the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas.
The closure of consulates marks a significant escalation in the multiple disputes between the two countries, ranging from trade and technology to human rights or the sovereignty of the South China Sea.
The US State Department expressed “disappointment” and recalled that the consulate “has been at the center of (…) relations with the people of western China, including Tibet, for 35 years”.
“We are disappointed with the decision of the Chinese Communist Party and will endeavor to continue to reach people in this important region, through our other posts in China,” reads the statement.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a brief warning stating that the “competent authorities” entered the front entrance and took over the premises, after US diplomats left.
The day before, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a protest statement about what it called an invasion of its Houston consulate, considering it violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the China-US Consular Convention.
“The Chinese side regrets and strongly opposes the US decision to forcibly enter the Chinese Consulate General in Houston, and has presented solemn representations. China will adopt legitimate and necessary retaliations,” according to the statement.
China maintains consulates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, in addition to the embassy in Washington.
The United States has four other consulates in China and an embassy in Beijing, ensuring parity in terms of diplomatic missions.
The Chengdu consulate gained prominence in 2012, when the chief of police in the neighboring city of Chongqing took refuge in the diplomatic mission, precipitating the fall of Chongqing’s rising leader, Bo Xilai, in the biggest political scandal in China in decades.
He was also host to former US Vice President Joe Biden during a visit to China, when the current Democratic presidential candidate accompanied the then Vice President of China and now Head of State, Xi Jinping, on a trip to the city. .
The American flag was removed from the Chengdu mission at 06:18 in China (23:18 Sunday in Lisbon), according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
Police closed an area of two to three blocks around the consulate, cutting off virtually any view of the property, including the flag.
The impending closure of the consulate drew a steady stream of spectators over the weekend, prompting police to close the street and sidewalk in front of the consulate and to install metal barriers along the sidewalk across the tree-lined road.
Uniformed and plainclothes policemen were guarding both sides of the barriers after scattered incidents, including a man who fired fireworks.
Another man who displayed a poster at the end of Sunday, which he called an open letter to the Chinese government, was quickly taken away by the police.
The US claimed that the Houston consulate was a nest of Chinese spies, who tried to steal data from facilities in Texas, including the Texas A&M medical system and the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston.
China said the allegations were “malicious slander”.