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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Houston (and Chengdu), we have a problem

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on July 27, 2020 and can be accessed here.

In the age of live streaming diplomacy, Sino-US relations took another nosedive last week. The United States ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Texas. In retaliation, the Chinese government ordered the US consulate in Chengdu to be shut down. The current tensions will further complicate precarious relations between the two countries.

Even before the tensions over the consulates, the US Department of Justice accused hackers of stealing intellectual property related to the COVID-19 vaccine to pass on to Chinese government officials. This is the first-ever US accusation of state-sponsored hacking by China. Instead of the tensions abating, the US government directed the Chinese consulate in Houston – which serves states in the American south (Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Puerto Rico) – to close down over allegations of espionage and grant fraud. Before the 72-hour deadline was up, videos of individuals burning papers (allegedly classified documents) within the Chinese consulate circulated across the internet. Over a hundred people turned up to heckle the consulate workers who were packing up. After the staff left the consulate, US federal agents entered the premises leading to more protest from the Chinese who argue that the forced entry is a violation of the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations

The scene was not much different in China except in scale. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had retaliated by withdrawing its consent for the establishment and operation of the US Consulate General in Chengdu. Crowds gathered outside the consulate all the while waving Chinese flags, taking selfies and watching the scene. One man set off fireworks and was promptly removed by authorities. The same thing happened to another man who attempted to unfurl a banner. Meanwhile, the topic is trending on Weibo with many Chinese netizens supporting the idea of converting the consulate into a hotpot restaurant.

The last time that embassies were drawn into larger Sino-US conflict was in 1999 when NATO accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in 1999. It resulted in violent demonstrations by over a lakh people at the US embassy in Beijing, leaving the staff holed up inside the premises for days together. In Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones, he writes about the atmosphere in China at the time:

“In Beijing, the Communist Youth League had bused groups of university students into the embassy district, where they marched past the American and British compounds. The national television news ran footage of the Beijing demonstrations, and students across the country quickly organized. In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, protestors set fire to the home of the American consul-general. Using an iron bicycle rack as a battering ram, they attempted to break the bulletproof front door of the consulate. In Beijing, students pelted the American and British embassies with rocks and bricks and paint bombs. The vandalism spilled over to a few other embassies, including the Albanian compound. Apparently, the protestors were angry because the Albanians were the ethnic group whose plight had inspired the NATO campaign.”

In the current crisis, the nationalisms on either side have not yet resulted in violent outbursts. But it would do well to remember that both the US and China now have significant groups who are nationalistic and mobilised against the other. With the US presidential elections coming up in November, Donald Trump is intent on using his China policy to score points with his constituents at home. If that is indeed the case, then tensions between the two countries are only set to get worse.

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