The U.S. has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston. Having received word of their impending closure, staff at the consulate began to burn documents in a courtyard. According to the State Department, the move was taken “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.” Senator Marco Rubio’s description of the Houston consulate as a “spy shop” and the “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States” provided additional clues as to what lay behind Washington’s decision. A U.S. official described the mission as an “epicenter” of economic espionage. Reports the Chinese consulate in San Francisco was sheltering a Chinese researcher whom the FBI alleges “lied about her connection to the Chinese military in order to receive a U.S. visa” further added to the mix on a heady day.
Immediately, speculation on both sides of the Pacific began, not on whether China would retaliate, but how. It is expected China’s response will include the closure of at least one American consulate. According to Reuters, “China was considering closing the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, where the State Department withdrew staff and their families early this year due to the coronavirus outbreak that first emerged in the city.” However, closing Wuhan would be a meek response. The diplomatic post there is relatively unimportant: It was only established in 2008 and does not yet issue visas or provide services to American citizens.
Closing down the consulate in Hong Kong would be much more impactful. In addition to the symbolic value, it would impose hardships on the large American community living there, as well as on Hongkongers who are looking for a U.S. escape plan. Shuttering the consulate would send a clear message not just about Houston, but also about U.S. policies toward Hong Kong. At the same time, it would draw even more attention to China’s own actions in Hong Kong, as controversy over the recent National Security Law (NSL) endures (for our own take on the NSL, see Requiem for Hong Kong). It would become very hard for Beijing to pay even minimal lip service to the idea of Hong Kong autonomy and “one country, two systems” if it kicks out the Americans. Maybe they don’t mind, maybe they do.
Though it probably wouldn’t garner as much attention as a move in Hong Kong, the practical impact of shutting down the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou could be greater. Guangzhou handles all immigrant visa (IV) applications in Mainland China. Close down the consulate, and American citizens won’t be able to reunite with their Chinese spouses, elderly parents, and adult children. IV operations also include visas for adopted children. According to the State Department, more than one-third of all international adoptions in the U.S. are from China.
In due time, IV operations could be transferred to a different China post, such as the embassy in Beijing. However, even if the Chinese don’t actively hinder the process (and why wouldn’t they?), it could take months before a transfer is complete. Dozens of American and local staff would ultimately need to be repurposed, and workspace restrictions at other posts could mean that nonimmigrant (NIV) visa applications (including those for student and work visas) are deprioritized. And let’s not forget all of this will be happening as the State Department comes to grips with the backlog that continues to build as visa operations are suspended on account of COVID-19 .
Messing with immigrant visas would surely engender ill will toward China, and this is presumably entering into Beijing’s calculations. If they want to avoid the bad PR that comes from keeping adopted babies separated from their parents (which would bring up problematic comparisons to things that happen both in the U.S. and China), then Shanghai might be the ticket. The large American business community would be negatively impacted, with expats having to trek out to Beijing for passport renewals and other services, and local staff having to do the same for visas.
As to the remaining consulates in Chengdu and Shenyang, the inconvenience factor would be greater than in Wuhan’s case, as they both offer visa and American citizen services. But in the grander scheme of things, their choice would have to be seen as a measured response by China.
It’s hard to imagine a response that doesn’t include a consular shutdown, but this is not the only thing that China can do or is likely to do. Beijing may also wish to respond to Senator Rubio’s concerns about Chinese spying out of their mission in Houston. To be sure, what would be surprising is if they did not have spies working out of Houston, or any of their other U.S. consulates. But China isn’t the only country that uses its diplomatic posts as spy bases. A measured Chinese response could include the expulsion of one or more suspected U.S. intelligence operatives. A Wolf Warrior response would have all suspected spooks expelled (maybe with some regular diplomats thrown in as well), while at the same time revealing the identities of American operatives elsewhere in the world.
Of course, not all spies work out of diplomatic missions. This would be a perfect time for China to snatch up an alleged U.S. spy or two who do not get to invoke diplomatic immunity. Whether those persons are in fact spies is beside the point, as Canada’s Two Michaels can attest.
We are on the edge of the precipice. Anything other than a muted Chinese response could lead to further U.S. ripostes. At a minimum, the lives of everyday people in both countries will be impacted. Americans with family or business in China will face further hardships getting visas and authenticating documents, and vice versa. And if cooler heads don’t prevail, we could be entering a dangerous spiral of escalation that could move beyond diplomatic games. The Wolf Warriors may be about to be released.
It isn’t just classified documents in Houston that are burning. The entire U.S.-China relationship is going up in flames. Not that we didn’t predict this way back in May 2019, in The US-China Cold War Starts Now: What You Must do to Prepare. Now for our next prediction: the EU will soon more markedly join with the United States in opposing China.