Exterior of the compound of the US Consulate in Guangzhou. A US diplomat stationed in the city fell ill and was diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury.  Photo: Handout
Exterior of the compound of the US Consulate in Guangzhou. A US diplomat stationed in the city fell ill and was diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury. Photo: Handout

It appears that the specter of uncanny sounds that once haunted US  diplomats in Cuba has returned, and this time in the southern Chinese trading hub of Guangzhou, where a US Consulate employee reportedly fell victim to some unexplained brain trauma.

The US Embassy in Beijing issued a health alert on Wednesday after a US diplomat based at the US Consulate in Guangzhou experienced “subtle and vague but abnormal sensations of sound and pressure,” which led to a minor brain injury, in an incident eerily reminiscent of a mysterious “auditory blitz” that hit American diplomats in the Cuban capital of Havana last year.

US and Chinese authorities are said to be trying to unravel the enigma, after the employee was diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury after he was sent back to the US last week, embassy spokeswoman Jinnie Lee said.

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The US Embassy in China issued a health alert to all US citizens in China after the incident.

The alert that the US Embassy e-mailed to US citizens residing in China urged anyone encountering similar complications to seek medical treatment.

“While in China, if you experience any unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena accompanied by unusual sounds or piercing noises, do not attempt to locate their source. Instead, move to a location where the sounds are not present and consult a doctor,” it said.

The employee experienced “a variety of physical symptoms” from late last year to April while on duty in Guangzhou, capital of the southern province of Guangdong.

It is not clear whether the victim developed these symptoms while inside the consulate’s compound or in an apartment rented and provided to him by the consulate.

A Chinese national is seen outside the US Consulate in Guangzhou. Photo: Weibo
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Pedestrians walk past the new compound of the US Consulate in Guangzhou. Photo: Handout
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The US Consulate occupies a 3-hectare prime plot at the heart of Guangzhou’s new central business district. Photo: Handout

The US Consulate in the southern metropolis inaugurated a new US$267 million, 3-hectare compound in a garden setting surrounded by skyscrapers in Pearl River New Town, Guangzhou’s bustling new central business district, in 2013 as the second purpose-built venue housing a US diplomatic mission in China, after the new US Embassy compound in Beijing. US contractors were responsible for the construction of a four-story office block, while other work was sourced to Chinese builders.

Besides the industrial powerhouse of Guangdong, the consulate’s jurisdiction covers three other provinces, Fujian, Guangxi and Hainan. The consulate adjudicates annually more than a million visa applications, while processing all emigration and adoption applications  received throughout China.

It is believed that the US Embassy as well as other US consulates in Shanghai, Wuhan, Shenyang and Chengdu have heightened their security levels since Wednesday.

The ‘sonic attack’ incident is also widely reported by media in China and across Asia. Photo: Hong Kong TVB screen grab
The ‘sonic attack’ incident is also widely reported by media in China and across Asia. Photo: Hong Kong TVB screen grab
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (right) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi both vowed to look into the case during a press conference after the pair’s first talks in Washington on Wednesday. Photo: AP

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is currently in Washington, DC, for his first meet with his newly installed US counterpart Mike Pompeo, and during an ensuing press conference on Wednesday local time, Wang said the Guangzhou incident was “an individual case” and that the Chinese side was yet to find any organization or individual responsible for the “sonic influence,” stressing China’s protection of lawful rights of foreigners in his country, particularly those of diplomats.

Pompeo, grilled by media about the incident, admitted that he had learned about it “only recently” and had notified China of what took place to the best of his knowledge in a discussion with Wang about how both could “endeavor to figure out what happened.”

He added that China had honored its commitment under the Vienna Convention that enabled diplomats to perform their functions without fear of coercion or harassment by the host country.

Pompeo did not respond to questions on whether retaliatory steps would be taken as the US did against Havana that involved withdrawal of diplomats.

Other than Wang’s remarks in Washington, so far there has been no official response from the Chinese government. But the nationalist tabloid Global Times has sounded off on the matter, admonishing the US for issuing such an alert to all US citizens in China as a “premature” move insinuating that it might not be a standalone case, causing trepidation among foreigners as if there were systematic, nationwide risks facing them.

The US Embassy in Beijing. Offices of US diplomatic missions across China have stepped up their security. Photo: Getty Images

An op-ed in the paper also shrugged off the conspiracy theory that Beijing was behind a callous plot, questioning what Beijing could possibly gain from such a preposterous physical assault using some absurd “acoustic weapon” that sounded more like science fiction.

The paper drew the conclusion that although the investigation has just started, the victim’s previous physical or mental condition must be an underlying factor and that unknown, sporadic external factors in an urban setting could also be a major culprit.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that a special team of medical professionals would be en route to Guangzhou next week for physical evaluation of other staff members there to ascertain the cause.

The US partially closed its embassy in Cuba after more than a dozen of its diplomats suffered symptoms of acoustic attacks last year. Photo: DFIC

Twenty-four US diplomats and their family members deployed in Cuba fell ill from an unsolved “sonic attack” that left them with injuries resembling brain trauma last year. Ten Canadian diplomats and their relatives also experienced a similar injury.

The victims reported headaches, hearing loss, disorientation and some loss of cognitive ability. They had associated the onset of their symptoms with “unusual sounds or auditory sensations,” a State Department physician told the US Senate in January this year.

Charles Rosenfarb, a doctor and director of the State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services, told Agence France-Presse the symptoms were mixed, but consistent with brain trauma.

Officials initially suspected the Americans had been targeted by some sort of acoustic weapon, although in public, senior officials spoke of “health attacks.”