China and the World

Diplomatic exit

Consulates close down, as Sino-US tensions simmer


The US consulate plaque is removed in Chengdu

Past experience means America’s overseas diplomats must keep an eye on the emergency exits. The last-gasp airlift from the embassy roof in Saigon in 1975 is one of the most dramatic of their departures. Staff in Tehran didn’t get out in time four years later when students burst through the gates, taking a number of hostages.

The closure of the American consulate in Chengdu on Monday hardly bears comparison to those two crises. Indeed, the atmosphere in Chengdu was more cordial last week than in 1999, when crowds threw stones at the American embassy in Beijing after the inadvertent bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by the US military.

This time around the expulsion of the US officials was a tit-for-tat measure, made in response to the shutting down of the Chinese consulate in Houston this month.

State department officials allege that the consulate was a staging point for Chinese spies trying to steal information from universities in Texas, although the Chinese government rejected the accusations, lambasting the closure as an unprecedented breach of diplomatic etiquette.

The consulate in Chengdu was last in the spotlight in 2012 when it provided temporary refuge to Wang Lijun, a former police chief trying to defect after falling out with his boss Bo Xilai, a Communist Party supremo now doing jail time for abuse of power (see WiC138).

While Wang was inside the consulate the building was surrounded by police. Last weekend it was crowds circling the premises, waving Chinese flags and taking selfies as they waited for the consulate to close. State broadcaster CCTV even set up a livestream to monitor the scene, including a bout of booing from bystanders as a bus left the building, AFP reported.

That gave the proceedings something of a pantomime feel, matching events in Houston when Chinese diplomats were jeered as they left their mission for the last time.

Soon afterwards a group of men crow-barred their way inside the Houston premises, prompting another furious complaint from the Chinese foreign ministry.

Decent dramas need villains and there’s been a discernible change in how Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, has been talking about the target of the American action, with 27 mentions of “Communist” China or its ruling Communist Party in one of his speeches last week.

“If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party, whose actions are the primary challenge today in the free world,” he warned.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi led the fight back in comments to his counterpart at the German foreign ministry, in which he painted Pompeo and his colleagues as agent provocateurs.

“The current difficulties are completely created by the US side. Its purpose is to disrupt China’s development; it unscrupulously resorts to all means to this end,” Wang was reported as saying by his ministry’s website.

Away from the rhetoric there’s an argument that the two closures have been calibrated more carefully, with neither side wanting to trigger another escalation in events.

Houston ranks lower down the pecking order of the Chinese missions in the United States, while the Chinese chose Chengdu in response, rather than one of the larger American consulates in Guangzhou or Shanghai.

Shutting the US embassy in Beijing would have been a bombshell, and any order to close the consulate in Hong Kong would also have been political dynamite, following Beijing’s passing of a new national security law there this month (although a majority of readers polled by the Global Times still wanted the American consulate closed in Hong Kong, with many claiming that US officials have been interfering in local politics).

The question now is how the Sino-US mood might worsen in the weeks ahead. One possibility is that President Trump brings a formal end to the trade talks between the two governments, something that he signalled in mid-July with comments that he was “not interested” in engaging in a second round of negotiations.

Vice-Premier Liu He and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer are still expected to meet next month, although it’s hard to see how much progress can be made in the current context.

Perhaps more ominously, the Chinese military is currently running live-fire drills in the South China Sea at a time when the US air force has been flying more surveillance missions across the region. Chinese netizens have been banging the war drums after coverage of the American missions on state television, with some calling for the aircraft to be shot down.

Another option that Washington is said to be considering is banning members of the Chinese Communist Party (and their families) from entering the United States.

Backers of the policy think that it would create huge inconvenience for senior members of the Chinese government and their relatives, as well as many of the country’s most successful businesspeople, which could pressure President Xi Jinping to adopt a more accommodative stance.

One of the estimates in the American media is that a travel block could apply to as many as 270 million Chinese (on the basis of about 92 million Party members, plus their spouses and children), although an obvious administrative challenge for a blockade would be identifying the people who can’t come into the country. After all, Party membership is not something that is easily verifiable by US border officials.

Zhengxu Wang, a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University, told the South China Morning Post last week that the impact of a ban is also being overstated, because most of the people in the targeted group have little reason to visit the US. All the same, a block on those that do need to travel would wreak further damage on the American economy, he warned, not just from businesspeople unable to visit but also because of another drop in the number of families sending their children to the US to study.

In the meantime there is a sense that the Chinese government is biding its time until the end of the year, when they are counting on a change of personnel at the White House. But although a Joe Biden victory in the presidential election might allow for some kind of restart on some issues, there’s always the risk that campaigning season stirs up more anti-China sentiment too.

“There are no illusions about restoring relations back to the good old days, but a new president at least provides a chance to reset relations,” an unnamed Chinese official told Reuters last week. “After all, you can’t get a worse relationship than the current one.”

Interestingly, as vice-president Biden spent a couple of days with Xi Jinping in Chengdu in 2011 in a bid to get to know China’s then future leader better. They met five times and enjoyed an informal dinner (see WiC119). That, at least, means there is at least some personal history between the two men and perhaps the foundations of a future relationship.

That said, the wider context to Sino-US relations is now very different to back then. And the consulate’s closure means that a return visit to Chengdu looks pretty unlikely, even if Biden wins November’s election.

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