The Trump administration is preparing to order China to sharply reduce the number of diplomats posted in the United States to levels equal to the number of American diplomats stationed in China, senior State Department officials said.
The action seeks in part to reduce the burden on FBI counterintelligence agents, who in recent months have devoted 2,000 special agents to catching Chinese spies and their agents, the senior official said. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said recently that the bureau is opening a new Chinese-related case on average every 10 hours.
“By August, we want reciprocal levels and access” for U.S. diplomats abroad, said one senior U.S. official, who spoke on background in advance of the formal announcement expected this week.
U.S. and Chinese officials were negotiating the equal diplomatic levels last week, the official said, in the wake of the U.S. closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston and Beijing’s retaliatory closure of the U.S. Consulate in the western city of Chengdu.
Mr. Wray noted in a July 7 speech that “of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases currently underway across the country, almost half are related to China.” Prime targets, he said, were U.S. health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions working on COVID-19 research.
The number of Chinese diplomats in the United States could not be learned. The State Department’s most recent list shows 245 diplomats attached to the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
Scores of additional Chinese diplomats are posted at consulates in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and, until Friday, in Houston.
The number of American diplomats in China is believed to be more than 200, posted to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and consulates in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Wuhan and, until this week, in Chengdu.
The Wuhan consulate is the smallest. Since the COVID-19 pandemic originated in the city, the consulate has been staffed with a small diplomatic team. The State Department was prepared to close the Wuhan consulate before ordering the Chinese Consulate in Houston closed, officials said.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing is one of the largest American diplomatic posts overseas. It includes officials from the State Department, the CIA, the FBI and the Commerce Department.
U.S. officials said the cuts in Chinese diplomatic representation were also motivated by China’s refusal this month to allow reentry for dozens of American diplomats who left during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak. That diplomatic row was related to Chinese testing and quarantine demands.
The pursuit of equal diplomatic levels is part of the Trump administration’s broader reciprocity approach, which seeks fair and equitable relations with Beijing across a variety of fields.
“The State Department at every level, all across the world, has engaged with our Chinese counterparts simply to demand fairness and reciprocity,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in speech in California last week.
In contrast to what officials said is the mistreatment of American diplomats, Chinese diplomats in the United States have been allowed relatively unfettered access to U.S. officials and news media.
In response to the unfair treatment, the State Department in October required Chinese diplomats to provide notification for all meetings with local officials — something that does not restrict their access to those officials.
China’s official press sharply condemned the closing of the Houston consulate and said Trump administration officials failed to provide any evidence in public for the espionage charges. A “reality check” published by China’s Xinhua News Agency said the “real aim of the U.S. decision was to deflect people’s attention from the U.S. administration’s poor handling of COVID-19.”
Asked about any pending reductions in Chinese diplomats the U.S., a State Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
The plan to cut Chinese diplomatic personnel follows a tense standoff at the Chinese Consulate in Houston last week.
Firefighters were called to the compound after consulate employees began burning documents in a courtyard July 21. The document destruction was the first indication that the facility had been ordered to close.
China’s government retaliated by ordering the closure of the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, the third-largest city in southern China. All 19 diplomats posted to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu have left, the senior official said. Chinese media showed a large group of local residents watching the handover.
According to the senior officials, Beijing initially refused to comply with a U.S. demand to vacate the Houston consulate by Friday and tried to negotiate a deal with the United States for continued access to the facility.
The FBI was “ready to go” and forcibly remove all Chinese personnel from the facility if the Chinese government failed to move out on time.
Chinese officials were given several hours after the Friday deadline to leave the facility, and the FBI did not need to use force. However, agents entered the building after the eviction.
Tracking the spies
Kenneth deGraffenreid, a former deputy national counterintelligence executive and a senior counterspy official, said cuts in the number of Chinese diplomats are justified to combat Beijing’s spying operations in the U.S.
“At least since the 1980s, counterintelligence professionals and other national security experts have realized that the large number of Chinese intelligence officers operating in the United States under diplomatic cover simply overwhelms our relatively modest counterintelligence capabilities,” Mr. deGraffenreid said.
Reductions in the number of Chinese diplomatic personnel in the country are “long overdue,” he added.
“But even this move to somewhat ‘level the operational field’ still leaves scores of thousands of Chinese students in the U.S., some of whom are used by [China’s intelligence service] to spy.”
Former State Department official John Tkacik said Chinese consular missions in the United States “are staffed primarily by capable intelligence and [Communist] Party propaganda officers who avail themselves of their unfettered access to all sectors of American society.”
“The sheer number of Chinese consular officials and their frenetic op-tempo have overwhelmed FBI field offices, which have sole jurisdiction for domestic U.S. counterintelligence yet possess few language-qualified special agents and have limited monitoring/surveillance resources,” Mr. Tkacik said.
Mr. Tkacik, a China expert, said U.S. consulates in China are staffed by Foreign Service officers, American dependents of diplomats, and local clerical staff often trained by the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the civilian spy agency.
The consulate in Chengdu was the scene of a tense internal standoff in 2012 after a senior Chinese Communist Party official, Wang Lijun, attempted to defect and sought refuge at the consulate.
After his defection became public, Bo Xilai, China’s regional party leader and Mr. Wang’s boss, dispatched People’s Armed Police armored units to surround the consulate. The backlash from the incident led to Mr. Bo’s fall from power.
Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state, defended the decision to return Mr. Wang to Beijing authorities. She told a Chinese television interviewer at the time that “he did not fit any of the categories for the United States giving him asylum.” Mr. Wang had been accused of corruption and violating human rights.
Mrs. Clinton said the defector was returned discreetly to avoid embarrassing Beijing authorities.
Critics of the decision to give up Mr. Wang said many important defectors had unsavory backgrounds and that the U.S. lost a valuable source of intelligence on the inner workings of the CCP.
Mr. Tkacik said the mishandling of the defection was a “cosmic screw-up” by consulate staff and was likely compromised by MSS agents working inside the facility.
“In China, American consular mission officials had no direct access anywhere in local government, academia, churches, social or labor organizations, news or propaganda organs,” he said.
Meetings with Chinese businesses also are subject to veto by the Provincial Foreign Affairs Office.
“We never, ever, had permission to meet with the Communist Party, except once we met with Fuzhou CCP Secretary Xi Jinping in June 1991. I gather it remains so unto this day,” said Mr. Tkacik, who was posted in Guangzhou in the 1990s.
Chinese consular missions in the United States, in sharp contrast, have been secured against U.S. counterintelligence monitoring and their diplomats have unfettered access to all aspects of society, except perhaps military bases, he said.
Mr. Tkacik estimates that larger consulates could host 30 U.S. diplomats.
In October, a senior State Department official told reporters that Chinese diplomats stationed in the United States “are able to take full advantage of our open society to meet with a whole range of Americans.”
Leveling the playing field
The State Department has been complaining about the limits on its diplomats for years, but China’s government had not taken any steps to provide greater access.
“Unfortunately, in China, U.S. diplomats do not have unfettered access to a range of folks that are important for us to do our job there,” the official said. “That includes local and provincial-level officials, academic institutions, research institutes and so on.”
The official said the coming U.S. actions would “go some ways toward leveling the playing field” but “we would like to have much greater access for our diplomats in China.”
“Our goal is to get the Chinese authorities to allow our diplomats in China to engage with provincial and local leaders, Chinese universities, and other educational and research institutes freely, the same way that the Chinese diplomats are able to do here,” the official said.
A report to Congress said the Chinese have severely restricted access by U.S. diplomats and journalists to Tibet, a region occupied by Chinese military forces in the 1950s.
The Chinese Consulate in San Francisco briefly sheltered a Chinese military researcher, Juan Tang, who was sought by the FBI for failing disclose her ties to the People’s Liberation Army. The University of California student was arrested Thursday at a location outside the consulate.
An intelligence official told reporters last week that Chinese activities at the consulate were “particularly aggressive and particularly successful.”
China has been using its diplomatic outposts to conduct illegal operations that employ what the FBI calls “fox hunt” teams — groups of Chinese agents who harass and intimidate Chinese dissidents and others whom the regime perceives to be threats.