Curious onlookers flock to closed US consulate in China

Leo RAMIREZ et Noel CELIS
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Masked police in front of the shuttered US consulate in Chengdu

Masked police in front of the shuttered US consulate in Chengdu (AFP Photo/Noel Celis)

Chengdu (China) (AFP) - Taking selfies and waving Chinese flags curious locals flocked to the US consulate in Chengdu Sunday as officials prepared to remove its official plaque just days after Washington and Beijing ordered each other to close one of their diplomatic missions.

Tensions between the two countries over trade and the coronavirus rose another notch on Tuesday when the US ordered China’s consulate in Texas closed, saying it was a hub of espionage and intellectual property theft.

On Sunday a constant stream of onlookers in the city of 16.5 million people flowed past the consulate, many taking photos.

Large numbers of police kept them from getting too close and put a quick stop to any provocative gestures or obvious signs of joy as the Americans left.

One passerby launched into a nationalist chant and was quickly silenced, according to a video posted on social media.

AFP journalists saw security confiscate a banner. The measures however didn’t stop a local draping a huge Chinese flag from his balcony and shouting "China" into the street.

Boos also went up when a bus with tinted windows left the building on Sunday.

An attempt to pry the main plaque from the wall of the shuttered consulate with a crowbar, hammer and chisel failed.

Beijing hadn’t given a date for the consulate’s closure, but on Saturday most of the insignia were stripped from the building.

-- Necessary response --

The US has an embassy in Beijing as well as five consulates in mainland China -- including the one in Chengdu -- plus one in Hong Kong.

The Chengdu consulate covered the country’s southwest, including -- notably -- Tibet. Many Tibetans accuse the central government of religious repression and eroding their culture.

Shutting down the consulate, the foreign ministry said Friday, was a "legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable measures by the United States".

"Some personnel at the US consulate in Chengdu were engaged in activities outside of their capacity, interfered in China's internal affairs, and endangered China's security and interests," spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

In 2013, China demanded the US provide an explanation for a spying programme after news reports said a top-secret map leaked by fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden showed surveillance facilities at US embassies and consulates worldwide -- with the Chengdu consulate among them.

Chinese nationalists had called for a more strident response from the authorities however -- the closure of the US consulate in Hong Kong, a move that would have further hiked tensions.

The semi-autonomous city saw large, rolling pro-democracy protests last year and Beijing has frequently said it suspects the US of being behind the unrest.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday the Chinese consulate in Houston was a "hub of spying and intellectual property theft".

The fourth largest city in the United States, Houston is a major global centre for medical and biological research.

Washington officials said attempts to steal secrets in those fields had grown too numerous to ignore.

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