The Chinese consulate in Houston, which has been ordered by the United States to close, was a “massive spy center” for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to Senate Intelligence Committee acting Chairman Marco Rubio.
“China’s consulate in Houston is not a diplomatic facility. It is the central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies and influence operations in the United States. Now that building must close & the spies have 72 hours to leave or face arrest,” Rubio said on Twitter on July 22, adding that the closure is long overdue.
The United States on July 22 said it ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston to close, according to State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus. The spokeswoman said the closure was ordered “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”
Chinese embassies and consulates worldwide are mandated to influence local politicians and government officials and mobilize members of the Chinese community and Chinese students to advance the CCP’s influence, according to Chen Yonglin, Beijing’s first secretary and consul for political affairs in Sydney, Australia, who defected in 2005.
“The control of the overseas Chinese community has been a consistent strategic objective of the Chinese Communist Party as a way to penetrate into the mainstream of the host country,” he said. “It’s not just in Australia. It is done this way in countries such as the U.S. and Canada too.”
The closure order came on the heels of an indictment of two Chinese nationals for a decade-long cyber espionage campaign in which they were accused of stealing information on weapons designs, drug information, software source code, and personal data.
In April, court documents from an unsealed federal lawsuit in Connecticut alleged that China’s ambassador to the United States and a top Chinese diplomat in New York City facilitated the covert recruitment of scientists in the United States. The Daily Beast was the first to report on the case.
In September last year, the United States expelled two Chinese embassy officials for driving onto a “sensitive” military base in Virginia, the first time in more than 30 years that Chinese diplomats were expelled over suspected espionage acts.
Top U.S. officials have recently amplified their criticism of the CCP, saying the regime is the biggest threat to the United States.
Roughly 80 percent of all economic espionage prosecutions brought by the Department of Justice (DOJ) allege criminal conduct intended to benefit the CCP. China is involved in some way in about 60 percent of all trade secret theft cases, according to the DOJ.
FBI director Christopher Wray said the bureau is opening a new counterintelligence investigation involving China every 10 hours. The bureau has more than 2,000 active China-related investigations, as part of the China Initiative, a large-scale counter-CCP campaign launched in November 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
China called the order to close the consulate “an unprecedented escalation” and said it would retaliate if the United States did not revoke the order. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the United States gave it three days to close the consulate.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the consulate is operating normally, but did not respond to questions about reports of documents being burned in the courtyard of the consulate. A video sent to a local news station and posted on social media showed several open fire pits in the courtyard.
Houston police told FOX 26 that staff there were burning documents because they are being evicted from the building.
“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,” Houston Fire Department Chief Samuel Pena told KTRK.
The State Department did not immediately respond to questions about the alleged spy activities at the consulate. Ortagus did not offer further details on the closure order, but pointed to a pair of statements from the Vienna Convention which mandate diplomats to “respect the laws and regulations of the receiving state” and “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that state.”
Omid Ghoreishi and Bowen Xiao contributed to this report.