The tit-for-tat consulate closures marked yet another round of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.
BEIJING — As the United States lashed out against the “new tyranny” of China, Beijing on Friday ordered the closure of the American consulate in Chengdu, a retaliatory move that threatens to drive the two powers into an even deeper divide.
Beijing blamed the Trump administration for the deterioration in relations, calling its own action justified after Washington told China this week to shutter its consulate in Houston and accused its diplomats of acting illegally. A Chinese official, in turn, denounced American diplomats in Chengdu, a southwestern city, for interfering in China’s affairs.
In the Chinese telling, Beijing is under assault, as the Trump administration goes after it with increasing intensity on trade, technology and human rights. All in a matter of weeks, the United States has sanctioned Chinese officials over the ruling Communist Party’s policies in Hong Kong and the western region of Xinjiang, cut off Chinese companies’ access to American technology and challenged Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.
The party’s propaganda outlets struck a nationalistic note on Friday, vowing that Beijing would hold firm in the face of mounting pressure from the United States.
“The United States has recently stirred up troubles in relations with China to the point of hysteria,” said the official Xinhua News Agency, in an editorial.
“The unprovoked closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston by the United States not only aroused the indignation of the Chinese people,” the editorial read, “but also allowed the international community to see the true face of American bullying.”
To the Trump administration, China has been the aggressor. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday accused Beijing of exploiting the West’s willingness to engage with the Communist Party. He called on “freedom-loving nations of the world” to band together and “induce China to change.”
It was a speech set against a symbolic backdrop. Mr. Pompeo spoke in California at the library of President Richard M. Nixon, whose visit to China in 1972 set in motion a new era of relations that, he said, disadvantaged the United States.
“If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party, whose actions are the primary challenge today in the free world,” said Mr. Pompeo, whose reference to the closing of the consulate in Houston was met with applause.
“General Secretary Xi is not destined to tyrannize inside and outside of China forever unless we allow it,” he added, referring to Xi Jinping, China’s leader.
Chinese officials have reacted angrily to the administration, accusing Mr. Pompeo and others of embracing a Cold War mentality. In a tweet on Friday, Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, criticized Mr. Pompeo for “launching a new crusade against China in a globalized world.”
“What he is doing is as futile as an ant trying to shake a tree,” Ms. Hua wrote.
Increasingly, both sides are staking out intractable positions from which it would be hard to find common ground.
“Pompeo’s speech is the new Cold War declaration of the United States,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “And the world is divided into two: Start anew and carry out all aspects of competition and confrontation with China.”
The concern is that the damage wrought by these recent moves will become increasingly difficult to reverse. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs appeared aware of this risk even as it announced the closure of the American consulate, suggesting that the United States could help to bring the relationship back on track if it immediately retracted its decision on the Houston consulate.
But the Trump administration has said the closure of the Houston consulate was necessary because it had become a hub of illegal spying and influence operations, allegations that Chinese officials have denied.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, accused American diplomats in Chengdu on Friday of engaging in inappropriate activities, without providing examples.
“They interfered in China’s internal affairs and harmed China’s national security interests,” he told reporters at a regular briefing.
Within hours of the announcement, the Chengdu consulate became an object of national fascination in China. A live video feed showing the closed front gate of the consulate had been viewed 24 million times by Friday evening on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging service.
Chinese diplomats had been seen burning what appeared to be documents in the courtyard of the Houston consulate after they were ordered to leave, raising speculation in China about whether American diplomats might do the same.
The immediate effect of the two consulates’ closures is expected to be minimal, especially since the visas they normally process have become moot at a time when travel has been severely limited by the coronavirus pandemic.
But the closure of the consulate in Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, the westernmost of the five American consulates in mainland China, deprives the United States in a city that is a hub for China’s commercial expansion across Central Asia. Chengdu is also its most valuable diplomatic outpost for gathering information on Xinjiang and Tibet, the two sometimes-restive regions in China’s far west.
Both regions have been the locations for wide-ranging security crackdowns that have drawn international criticism as abuses of human rights. Chinese officials have dismissed such concerns as unfair.
The consulate in Chengdu was also briefly at the center of Chinese political intrigue in 2012 when Wang Lijun, the police chief from the nearby metropolis of Chongqing, fled there after a falling-out with his boss, the city’s party leader, Bo Xilai. Mr. Bo was later accused of being at the center of a conspiracy to seize control of the Communist Party.
China had warned earlier this week that it would retaliate for the Houston consulate closure in kind. At the same time, the government appears to have little appetite for an escalation.
Global Times, a nationalistic Communist Party newspaper, acknowledged that Chinese leaders faced a dilemma in how to respond.
“Not to fight back will be regarded as weakness, which will lead to a series of consequences and seriously endanger China’s long-term national interests,” the paper said in a commentary. But, it noted, “taking countermeasures every time will force China and the United States to drift farther apart the more they fight, and accelerate their ‘decoupling.’”
The editorial said that Beijing ultimately could not afford to be passive: “China’s attitude is very simple, as long as it is a malicious provocation, we will fight back with no exception.”
Trump administration officials had accused Chinese diplomats in Houston of aiding economic espionage and the attempted theft of scientific research in numerous cases across the United States. Intelligence operatives from all countries operate out of their embassies and consulates, but with its actions, the administration is accusing the Chinese of going too far, violating American law by lying about their identities in order to operate undercover.
A summary of law-enforcement activities against the Chinese in the United States, provided by officials in Washington to The New York Times, depicted a web of covert efforts by the consulate to recruit researchers and others to collect technology and research, including at several of the top medical centers in the greater Houston region.
It also detailed a series of F.B.I. investigations across the country, disclosing that the bureau had conducted interrogations in 25 states of people thought to be members of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, who were sent to study or conduct research at U.S. universities without disclosing their affiliation.
The Justice Department announced on Thursday that four of them had been charged and three arrested. One, identified as Tang Juan, studied at the University of California, Davis, and fled to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco to escape arrest, according to the document. That has created yet another diplomatic crisis to untangle.