The US consulate in Chengdu covers China’s western provinces including Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan and Tibet. Photo: Handout

US diplomats in the western Chinese city of Chengdu are packing to leave as they have been made the punchbags by a vengeful Beijing, not too long after news broke of Washington’s precipitous push to shut the Chinese consulate in Houston.

It appears that Chengdu’s fire services department has taken a page out of the playbook of their peers in Houston: it scrambled fire engines to the US consulate compound Friday afternoon, even though no smoke was seen coming from the building.

In the drama on Thursday in Houston, plumes of smoke caused by Chinese diplomats burning documents inside the consulate triggered multiple fire alarms. But local firefighters arriving at the scene were told to leave. “Nothing to see here,” said the consulate’s security staffers.

A Chengdu resident told Asia Times that the road outside the US consulate had been closed to all traffic, with police cordoning off neighboring areas while corralling journalists and onlookers onto sidewalks even though the roads were empty.

The heavy police presence and road closure have left locals wondering how the Americans, who have just been declared personae non gratae by Beijing, can leave the city and ship their items before the 72-hour deadline expires on Sunday. Chinese diplomats in Houston have also been given the same short notice to pack and leave.

Chengdu’s police have closed the road outside the US consulate since Friday afternoon. Photo: WeChat
Police constables and a long convoy of police vehicles are seen outside the consulate compound. Photo: Weibo
A fire engine is deployed near the consulate since Friday afternoon. Photo: WeChat
A man is taken away by police after setting off firecrackers at the main entrance of the consulate. Photo: Weibo

Nerves were a little frayed as a long convoy of Chengdu police vehicles have been parked outside the main entrance to the consulate since Friday afternoon and constables were also spotted on the rooftops of nearby buildings overlooking the consulate compound.

It was previously thought that Beijing would target Washington’s outpost in Wuhan, which was still pending reopening after US pulled out its diplomats in late January during the height of the coronavirus calamity in the central Chinese megacity. The US State Department reportedly decided to postpone the reopening of its Wuhan consulate in a bid to forestall Beijing’s retaliation plan.

Beijing then changed tack and honed in on Chengdu, apparently aiming to cause more disruption to Washington’s diplomatic activities throughout China as the Chengdu consulate is bigger than the Wuhan office and did not shut its doors during the pandemic.

Washington maintains a sizable presence in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. The consulate, opened in 1985 by then Vice President George HW Bush, also covers other western provinces, including Chongqing, Yunnan, Guizhou and Tibet. More than 60 American diplomats and their family members are seconded to two separate locations across the city, including a dedicated agricultural trade office to promote US products and technologies in China’s western agrarian provinces, such as Sichuan and Guizhou.

A file photo shows George HW Bush and his wife Barbara opening the US consulate in Chengdu in 1985. Photo: Handout

Another reason for banishing American diplomats out of Chengdu is that the city of more than 16 million residents is a hub for Chinese military weapon research and production as well as an upstart IT center. Beijing’s move to close the US consulate there contains clear tit-for-tat spying implications, in response to the charges leveled at the Chinese diplomats in Houston.

Washington has accused Beijing’s Houston consulate of acting as a “front office” for the rampant and systematic theft of American intellectual property throughout the eight southern states from Arkansas to Alabama that are covered by the consulate. The State Department says the years-long stretches of Chinese espionage and infiltration to undermine US national security and interests have reached the point that actions must be taken to head off the threats.

It has also been revealed that Beijing’s Consul-General to Houston, Cai Wei, used “fake documents” for access to the airside at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to send some suspects back to Beijing, before US law enforcers could nab them for investigation.

Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV quoted its sources in the US as saying that the people Consul Cai saw off could be Chinese military personnel imbedded in the US.

Beijing has been swift in hitting back with counter-accusations that US Consul-General to Chengdu Jim Mullinax coordinated operations to glean intelligence in Lhasa and other parts of Tibet and ferment discord among the ethnical minorities in the alpine region.

Phoenix TV also reported that Beijing had “evidence” about the US consulate in Chengdu conducting espionage in Tibet as well as “poking around for intelligence” at the People’s Liberation Army’s Western Theater Command, which is also headquartered in Chengdu.

The US consulate in Chengdu has been in Beijing’s bad books since a 2012 saga when Chongqing’s deputy mayor Wang Lijun entered the consulate and defected to the US. Wang pled with the Americans to escort him to the US, after his falling-out with Chongqing’s party boss Bo Xilai, once a front-runner from the Communist Party’s princeling faction to succeed the then retiring President Hu Jintao.

The consulate’s sheltering of the renegade changed Beijing’s succession planning, and Wang eventually surrendered himself to Beijing’s agents who at one point laid siege to the consulate compound. The incident led to Bo’s downfall, clearing the way for Xi Jinping’s ascent.

Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai (left) send armed police to capture Wang Lijun (right) after he defected to the US Consulate in Chengdu. Photo: Reuters

Chengdu’s police continued to block roads leading to the US consulate in the small hours on Saturday, and there has been no response yet from Washington or the consulate itself regarding the closure. Local media say about 150 locally hired staff in Chengdu may lose their jobs.

The travails of Chinese and American diplomats in each other’s country appear to be far from over. Beijing’s nationalistic Global Times has already hinted that Chinese diplomats will stay in Houston “till the last minute,” and it is also believed that Americans in Chengdu may choose to stay as well.

Following US President Donald Trump’s threats to close more Chinese consulates, with the San Francisco outpost getting a special mention, it is also believed that Beijing is preparing to fight back. Beijing may shut Washington’s shop in the northeastern city of Shenyang if the US moves to target Beijing’s people in San Francisco.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing broadsheet Wenweipo also noted on Friday that refusing to renew the visas of Americans at the city’s consulate could also deal a further blow to Washington. The paper said that even though it would be irrational to close the US consulate in Hong Kong, Beijing could, through the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s office in the territory, tighten visa vetting to “halve” the number of American diplomats there.

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