Trump Says More China Consulate Closures Are Possible—Which Might Be Next?

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that more Chinese consulate closures are "always possible" after the U.S. ordered the consulate general in Houston to cease operations by Friday.

Staff at the Houston facility were seen burning documents in the building's courtyard on Tuesday night, as they prepared to evacuate the consulate per the U.S. order. Local firefighters and police were on the scene, but did not enter as the building is considered Chinese territory.

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus confirmed the order, explaining it was given "to protect American intellectual property and American's private information." She added that the U.S. would not tolerate "violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people."

The Houston consulate has long been suspected of acting as a U.S. espionage hub for the Chinese government. David Stilwell, who leads East Asia and Pacific policy at the State Department, told The New York Times that the consulate had a history of "subversive behavior."

Stilwell gave one example, noting that in May the consul general Cai Wei and two other diplomats were found using false identification to escort Chinese travelers through Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport for a charter flight. He also said that China had been accelerating its attempted thefts of scientific data in recent months, possibly linked to the search for a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Times also obtained a document detailing several FBI investigations into the Houston facility. This included probes into illegal transfers of medical research, efforts to recruit academics to hand over information to China, and coercion of Chinese fugitives and dissidents living in the U.S.

The closure of the Houston consulate and Trump's vague threat for more action have put Beijing's other U.S. consulates on notice. China also has consulates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. If the situation escalates, the Trump administration may take aim at one of these remaining facilities.

The San Francisco consulate has already been the source of controversy, having given refuge to researcher Tang Juan—the subject of an FBI arrest warrant for failing to disclose her links with the Chinese military.

The FBI executed a search warrant and seized Tang's electronic devices, Axios reported. Tang has now been charged with visa fraud but remains inside the consulate.

Chinese consulates across the country have also been engaging in so-called "mask diplomacy" during the coronavirus pandemic. Beijing has been assisting other nations with medical supplies—of mixed quality—and even doctors and nurses, seeking to present China as a helpful partner and vital ally in the fight against the virus.

But observers and lawmakers—including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—have framed this outreach as a propaganda effort and part of China's efforts to absolve the Chinese Communist Party of blame for the pandemic, which has infected more than 15 million people and killed more than 623,000 people worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The Chinese consulates in Chicago, San Francisco and Houston all donated thousands of masks to local communities. The pandemic has prompted a rapid deterioration in relations between Washington, D.C. and Beijing, and the Trump administration may look to punish any consulates involved in Chinese propaganda efforts.

Pompeo told governors in February that local influence operations are happening "all across the country." Pompeo cited a letter sent by China's consul general in New York to the speaker of the state legislature in January, urging the lawmaker not to support Taiwan's independent status.

Pompeo also said a California consulate paid UC-San Diego students to protest the Dalai Lama, and last year that the consulate in Chicago pressured a high school to disinvite a Taiwanese representative for a climate change panel.

"Chinese consulates in New York, in Illinois, in Texas, and two in California, bound by the diplomatic responsibilities and rights of the Vienna Convention, are very politically active at the state level, as is the embassy right here in Washington, D.C.," Pompeo told governors.

With China threatening retaliation for the Houston closure and U.S.-China ties worsening, any of Beijing's remaining consulates could find themselves in the firing line next.

Newsweek has contacted the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. to request comment on Trump's threat.

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The Chinese flag flies outside of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, on July 22, 2020 after the State Department ordered Beijing to close the facility. MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images/Getty