At least 11 American diplomats stationed in China, including nine from consulates in Guangzhou and Shanghai and two from its embassy in Beijing, have left the country for urgent medical tests and treatment in recent months.
They appear to be the latest victims of severe headaches and tinnitus suffered by members of the US diplomatic mission in China.
“Sonic attacks” were first reported in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in April, after a number of consular employees developed symptoms similar to those which affected colleagues at the US embassy in Havana in 2016. Diplomats in the Cuban capital suffered dizziness, insomnia and even partial hearing loss in 2016 after being subjected to frequent, strange sounds.
US diplomats in Guangzhou reportedly heard subtle but persistent sounds not only inside the consulate compound but also in their apartments at Canton Place, an upscale residential complex in downtown Guangzhou popular among diplomats and overseas businessmen.
- Pedestrians walk past the US consulate in Guangzhou. Photo: Handout
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang noted on Monday that their own investigators had found nothing suspicious, and called on the US to share any information they had.
Chinese papers on Tuesday also reported that Washington was pulling out diplomats from China, suggesting that this could be a tactic by the Trump administration to exert pressure on Beijing amid deteriorating relations due to trade and tariff disputes.
Last month Bloomberg cited one US diplomat as saying that he experienced some “strange” noises, sensations and pressures while on duty in Singapore to prepare for the summit between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
As well as US diplomats in China and Cuba, consular staff in Singapore and Uzbekistan have also reported suspected “sonic attacks”.
Those evacuated from China are now under observation at the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, where diplomats recalled from Havana were treated two years ago.
The US State Department has said that so far only one employee from Guangzhou had been diagnosed with minor concussion, adding that others were evacuated for other reasons.
Experts say health damage from ultra-low and ultra-high frequency sound waves decreases drastically with the increase in distance between the source and the victim. This means that, in order to be able to cause lasting health damage, the source of such sonic attacks would need to be comparable in size to an office block.
The New York Times reported last week that the sounds and sensations experienced in Cuba and China had been speculatively attributed to either sophisticated electronic eavesdropping efforts or a form of aural harassment. Some critics point the finger at Russia or China, while other experts raise the possibility of environmental factors or even mass hysteria.