China Threatens Retaliation After U.S. Orders Houston Consulate to Close

China has threatened retaliation after the U.S. ordered the closure of Beijing's consulate in Houston on Tuesday, giving staff there 72 hours to leave the country.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters at a daily briefing Wednesday that the order constituted an "unprecedented escalation" in tensions, following months of deteriorating relations between Washington, D.C. and Beijing.

"If the U.S. continues to go down the wrong path, we will resolutely respond," Wang said, according to Bloomberg. The U.S. has consulates in the Chinese cities of Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang and Wuhan. All could become targets of Chinese retaliation.

Hu Xijin, the editor of the nationalistic state-owned Global Times newspaper, wrote on Twitter than the U.S. had ordered China to close the Houston facility in 72 hours.

"This is a crazy move," said Hu, who in recent months has emerged as a prominent Chinese social media critic of President Donald Trump's administration and its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and ties with Beijing.

Wang's remarks came hours after Houston emergency services were called to the consulate following reports of staff burning documents there. Houston's KTRK news channel said that a small amount of smoke could be seen from a fire in the building's courtyard.

Firefighters did not enter the building to put out the fire because the facility is considered Chinese territory, KTRK said.

Chief Sam Pena told the channel: "It appears to be open burning in a container within the courtyard of the Chinese consulate facility. It does not appear to be an unconfined fire but we have not been allowed access. We are standing by and monitoring."

The KPRC2 channel shared video taken from people living close to the consulate, showing people around multiple small fires in the courtyard. An unnamed police source told the channel that staff at the consulate were being evicted at 4 p.m. Friday.

This video shared with us by a viewer who lives next to the Consulate General of China in #Houston shows fire and activity in the courtyard of the building.
DETAILS SO FAR: https://t.co/2cOeKoap96 pic.twitter.com/0myxe6HIlC

— KPRC2Tulsi (@KPRC2Tulsi) July 22, 2020

Relations between Washington, D.C. and Beijing have deteriorated rapidly since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which began in China and the Trump administration is blaming on the Chinese Communist Party.

Trump initially praised President Xi Jinping's handling of the outbreak, but has since pivoted to blaming Beijing for the disaster.

The U.S. became the epicenter of the outbreak, and has thus far recorded 3.9 million infections and 142,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, making it the worst-affected nation in the world on both counts.

The Trump administration has also imposed sanctions on Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in China's far western province of Xinjiang and the semi-autonomous Hong Kong region.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has continued its offensive against Chinese tech companies, which it says are merely arms of the CCP.

Beijing has responded with reciprocal visa restrictions and financial measures against American officials and lawmakers who have fronted legislation allowing sanctions against China.

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus confirmed that the U.S. had ordered the Houston consulate to close, according to The Washington Post.

The order was given "in order to protect American intellectual property and American's private information," Ortagus said.

She added that the U.S. "will not tolerate the PRC's violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated the PRC's unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior," referring to the country by its official name of the People's Republic of China.

"President Trump insists on fairness and reciprocity in U.S.-China relations," Ortagus said.

This article has been updated to include comment from the State Department.

China, Houston, consulate, fire, retaliation, sanctions, closed
This file photo shows a man handing out newspapers in front of a Chinese national flag in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020. DALE DE LA REY/AFP via Getty Images/Getty