- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Chinese Consulate in Houston that the Trump administration ordered closed Wednesday has been at the center of a major spying operation run by Beijing, U.S. officials say, an operation that has accelerated over the past six months as U.S. firms have geared up in search of a vaccine against the coronavirus.

The order to close the consulate in 72 hours is the latest and one of the most severe escalations in the brewing diplomatic war between Washington and Beijing. Chinese diplomats were frantically burning documents in open metal barrels on the facility’s grounds while keeping local firefighters at bay.

In Beijing, Chinese officials condemned the move and vowed to retaliate. Private Chinese analysts said the closure of the consulate was motivated by President Trump’s low standing in polls and the need to divert attention away from the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The State Department did not name any Chinese intelligence agents active among the consulate’s roughly 60 employees, but officials said the mission was ordered to close after a top diplomat used a fake ID to evade security and escort Chinese travelers onto a charter flight at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

U.S. authorities said the suspected espionage focused not just on security and military targets, but increasingly on what private American firms are studying in the race to stop the coronavirus.

China’s Houston consulate “is a massive spy center, forcing it to close is long overdue,” said a Twitter post from Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and acting chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Mr. Rubio said the Houston consulate was a “central node” of the Chinese Communist Party’s spy operations.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry called the abrupt order “outrageous” and threatened serious retaliation if Washington does not rescind it before the State Department’s Friday deadline for the consulate to be shut down completely.

Tensions between the world’s largest economies are likely to only escalate as Mr. Trump ramps up pressure on China ahead of the November election. The administration showed no indication of backing away from the order, which was issued a day after the Justice Department separately accused Chinese hackers of trying to steal coronavirus vaccine research.

“There’s been this long challenge of the Chinese Communist Party stealing intellectual property,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “We are setting out clear expectations for how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave, and when they don’t, we’re going to take actions that protect the American people, protect our security, our national security, and also protect our economy and jobs.”

The physical closure of the Chinese Consulate, one of six in the United States along with China’s mission to the United Nations, marked a dramatic step in contentious relations that have been strained by the COVID-19 pandemic and by disputes over trade, human rights, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

The Trump administration has taken a series of measures against Chinese officials, students and researchers that include travel bans and registration requirements to reduce their footprint in the United States. The president blames China, where the coronavirus was discovered in December, for the massive COVID-19 epidemic in the U.S. that threatens Mr. Trump’s prospects for reelection.

Fire at the consulate

Chinese officials appeared to be scrambling Wednesday to shut down operations in Houston. Video on social media showed billows of smoke emanating from the facility.

Foreign diplomatic missions operate under legal immunities accorded by international law, and local officials may not enter the grounds without permission. However, the destruction of confidential documents at a facility ordered or forced to close on short notice is not unusual. In 2017, the Russian Consulate in San Francisco made news for burning large amounts of material when it was ordered closed.

Aside from diplomatic ramifications, the closure will make it more difficult for China to provide assistance to its citizens in the southern U.S. and for U.S. nationals seeking visas and other services, although the pandemic has sharply curtailed air travel to China and the rest of the world.

The State Department provided few specific details on its timingh. Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said broadly that China has long run “massive illegal spying and influence operations throughout the United States.”

David R. Stilwell, assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told The New York Times that the Chinese military “has been sending students both overtly and otherwise to American universities to study things to advance their own warfare advantages.”

“At the epicenter of all these activities,” Mr. Stilwell said, “is this consulate in Houston.”

Mr. Stilwell pointed to a recent incident involving the top Chinese official at that mission, as well as two other Chinese diplomats, who were found to be engaged in suspicious activity at George Bush International Airport. He said the diplomats were escorting certain travelers to the gate area and that Air China had paperwork with false birth dates for them.

The State Department confirmed the information to The Washington Times but offered no further details.

It was not clear whether the closure order for the consulate was coordinated with the Justice Department’s unsealing of an indictment Tuesday accusing two Chinese hackers of trying to steal pharmaceutical secrets from U.S. companies researching vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.

Federal prosecutors said the hackers acted at times in conjunction with the Chinese Ministry of State Security but operated from China, not a Chinese government post inside the United States.

American officials have, however, long alleged that China is involved in a range of espionage activity across the United States, including from its Houston consulate, targeting U.S. intellectual property.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

Analysts say the activities at the Houston site were only a piece of a much larger Chinese intelligence operation in the U.S.

“It is no secret that Chinese state actors have long been suspected of engaging in espionage on U.S. soil, including those serving in official roles. The Houston consulate is no different, and it is possible that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Rob Davis, founder and CEO of the Texas-based cybersecurity firm CriticalStart.

“With the administration’s demand for the closure of the Chinese Consulate, and subsequent destruction of documents, we may see even more activity” from Beijing, Mr. Davis said.

Abraham Denmark, a China expert at the Wilson Center think tank, said “there is no doubt that China represents a tremendous espionage threat for the United States. The question here is not China’s culpability — I expect it’s solid — but rather if suddenly closing the consulate in Houston will address the problem.”

“In the coming days, I expect we’ll receive more information on this decision, potentially including people who collaborated with the Chinese,” Mr. Denmark said. “Earlier this month, FBI Director Chris Wray revealed that there has been a 1,300% increase in economic espionage cases linked to China over the past decade. Of the FBI’s nearly 5,000 active counterintelligence investigations across the country, Wray said that ‘almost half’ are related to China, with the bureau opening a new China-related counterintelligence case every 10 hours.”

U.S. officials said there is evidence that Chinese agents were seeking to steal U.S. data from facilities in Texas, including Texas A&M’s statewide medical network and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

The center was thrust into the global spotlight in April 2019 when it was reported that the University of Texas had investigated whether scientists working there may have improper communications with China. Beijing has long rejected such allegations, and critics say they should be handled sensitively to avoid unjustified prejudice against Chinese American scientists.

National security sources have warned for years about a Chinese government effort to steal scientific and other research. A 2018 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute outlined how Beijing was secretly enrolling China’s prize military scientists in Western universities to gain expertise in such areas as “hypersonic missiles and navigation technology.”

The institute, with links to the Australian Defense Department, said the People’s Liberation Army had paid for “more than 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study abroad” and that many of them concealed their official ties to China’s defense community.

Outrage in Beijing

Even before the U.S. officially conveyed the closure order to the Chinese ambassador to the United States on Tuesday, officials in Beijing were denouncing the move. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson called it “an outrageous and unjustified move that will sabotage relations.”

“The unilateral closure of China’s consulate general in Houston within a short period of time is an unprecedented escalation,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in Beijing. He warned of firm countermeasures if the U.S. does not reverse the order.

Mr. Wang accused the U.S. of opening Chinese diplomatic pouches without permission multiple times, confiscating Chinese items for official use and imposing restrictions on Chinese diplomats twice since October. He also said U.S. diplomats in China engage in comparable intelligence operations.

“If we compare the two, it is only too evident which [side] is engaged in interference, infiltration and confrontation,” Mr. Wang said. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, he said, has received bomb and death threats accusing the U.S. government of fanning hatred against China.

In addition to its embassy in Washington and its mission to the United Nations, China has consulates in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In an apparent bid to stave off the reciprocal closure of an American diplomatic mission in China, the State Department told the Chinese that it would not reopen its consulate in Wuhan, said two U.S. officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

U.S. diplomats who left China hurriedly at the beginning of the year have had difficulty returning to their posts, and several Chinese analysts speculated that the Houston consulate was targeted in retaliation.

The influential state-controlled Global Times in an editorial Wednesday called the U.S. move “crazy” and said it was clearly motivated by Mr. Trump’s political interests.

“The U.S. is trying to blame everything on China and to make U.S. voters, who do not understand China well, believe in Washington’s words,” the news outlet wrote. “The November presidential election is driving Washington mad.”

The U.S. Consulate in Wuhan was shuttered in late January at the height of the coronavirus outbreak that started there, but the State Department informed Congress in early June that it planned to reopen it, possibly this summer.

Besides Wuhan, the U.S. has four other consulates in China — in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenyang — along with its embassy in Beijing and a consulate general in Hong Kong.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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