China's Houston consulate closure linked to Covid-19 research, says US official

The US ordered China to shut its consulate in Houston in response to Chinese attempts to steal American science and technology secrets, including research on a Covid-19 vaccine, a senior State Department official said Friday.

In a briefing for journalists, the official linked activity at China's Houston consulate to Beijing's pursuit of research into a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

"There comes a time when you have to say, enough is enough," said the official, who insisted on anonymity.

The State Department official said espionage and other malign activity by China's diplomatic missions was occurring all over the US – and that its Houston consulate was one of the worst offenders.

Beijing has "egregiously abused its free and open access" to US society by running operations to illegally collect American intellectual property, the official said.

"Houston is a firm demonstration that we are serious," he added.

In direct retaliation, China on Friday ordered the United States to close its consulate in the city of Chengdu, as relations between the two world powers deteriorated further.

China had warned it would retaliate after it was unexpectedly given 72 hours – until Friday – to vacate its Houston consulate, and had urged Washington to reconsider.

"The US move seriously breached international law, the basic norms of international relations, and the terms of the China-US Consular Convention. It gravely harmed China-US relations," China's foreign ministry said in a statement.

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Ties between the two counties have sharply deteriorated over issues ranging from the coronavirus pandemic to Beijing trade and business practices, its territorial claims in the South China Sea and its clampdown on Hong Kong.

Tuesday's order to shut the Houston consulate marked a dramatic escalation after months of mud-slinging.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed the consulate had been "a hub of spying and intellectual property theft".

China has four other consulates in the United States – in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York – as well as an embassy in Washington.

US President Donald Trump told a news briefing on Wednesday it was "always possible" other Chinese missions could be closed too.