On Wednesday, the Trump administration issued a surprise order for the Chinese consulate in Houston to “cease all operations and events” by Friday afternoon. The move added to festering diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing over issues including rights abuses in Xinjiang, tit-for-tat policies aimed at restricting press access, and Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong. While the U.S. government didn’t initially provide clarity on the immediate reasons for the order beyond vague espionage allegations, news reports cited a relevant FBI investigation and noted allegations of a wanted Chinese researcher being harbored at the San Francisco consulate.
On Friday, the FBI arrested a Chinese scientist who was hiding from allegations of visa fraud at Beijing’s mission in San Francisco. CNBC’s Amanda Macias reports, noting that if convicted the suspect faces 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted:
According to court documents unsealed earlier this week in the Eastern District of California, Juan Tang, a researcher at the University of California at Davis, applied for a non-immigrant J1 visa in October 2019. The visa was issued in November 2019 and Tang entered the United States a month later.
Tang allegedly made fraudulent statements on her visa application by concealing that she served in the Chinese military. The FBI concluded that Tang was a uniformed officer of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force after photographs of her were uncovered on electronic media seized pursuant to a search warrant.
“I won’t discuss the circumstances of the arrest,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, adding that the individual did not have diplomatic immunity. The person said that the details of the arrest could be released when the defendant appears before the Eastern District of California court on Friday. [Source]
The AP reports that three other researchers have been formally arrested for visa fraud in connection with the probe. At CNN, Kylie Atwood, Nicole Gaouette, and Jennifer Hansler report that U.S. officials also commented further on the reasons behind the Houston consulate’s closure:
The activities in Houston “are a microcosm, we believe, of a broader network of individuals in more than 25 cities. That network is supported through the consulates here,” the Justice Department official said. “Consulates have been giving individuals in that network guidance on how to evade [and] obstruct our investigation. And you can infer from that the ability to task that (a) network of associates nationwide.”
[…] The idea to close the Houston consulate emerged this spring after China interfered when US officials returned to the consulate in Wuhan, closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, to retrieve diplomatic materials, a senior State Department official told CNN.
[…] The senior Justice Department official acknowledged that the US move against China’s espionage won’t yield many arrests. “By their very nature, consulates are a base of operations for foreign governments in the United States, including the intelligence services,” the official said, but “the sum total of the Houston consulates activities went well over the line of what we’re willing to accept.”
[…] “Our focus is on disrupting this activity out of Houston as well as deterring similar activity by Chinese officials and other consulates,” they said in the call with reporters. “Closing the Houston consulate and presenting relocation of those officials accomplishes both of those goals.” [Source]
Meanwhile, Beijing on Friday retaliated by ordering the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu to shut down. At The New York Times, Keith Bradsher and Steven Lee Myers report, noting official rebukes to a sharply worded speech this week from U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo:
Beijing blamed the Trump administration for the deterioration in relations, calling its own action justified after Washington told China this week to shutter its consulate in Houston and accused its diplomats of acting illegally. A Chinese official, in turn, denounced American diplomats in Chengdu, a southwestern city, for interfering in China’s affairs.
In the Chinese telling, Beijing is under assault, as the Trump administration goes after it with increasing intensity on trade, technology and human rights. All in a matter of weeks, the United States has sanctioned Chinese officials over the ruling Communist Party’s policies in Hong Kong and the western region of Xinjiang, cut off Chinese companies’ access to American technology and challenged Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.
The party’s propaganda outlets struck a nationalistic note on Friday, vowing that Beijing would hold firm in the face of mounting pressure from the United States.
[…] To the Trump administration, China has been the aggressor. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday accused Beijing of exploiting the West’s willingness to engage with the Communist Party. He called on “freedom-loving nations of the world” to band together and “induce China to change.” [Source]
At Whats on Weibo, Manya Koetse cites Chinese social media to report on the situation outside of the Chengdu consulate, and explains a meme that Chinese netizens created of the situation:
On Weibo, over two million people ‘liked’ one of the news posts reporting on the closure of the consulate in Chengdu. The most popular comment of the comment thread, receiving over 231,000 ‘thumbs up’ suggested to “directly turn [the consulate] into a hotpot restaurant.”
Chengdu is one of China’s authentic hotpot hot spots, and is famous for its Sichuan hotpot, with many hotpot restaurants scattered around the city.
“I’ve already got a hotpot restaurant name ready, when can we move in?”, one commenter suggested, with others responding that the only suitable name for the imaginary hotpot place would be “Trump Hotpot.”