The United States said Wednesday that it has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston "to protect American intellectual property" and the private information of Americans. China strongly condemned the move, the latest in a series of steps by the Trump administration as it ratchets up pressure on the world's second-largest economy over trade, technology, human rights and security.
Firefighters responded to reports of papers being burned on the consulate grounds Tuesday night but were barred entry, according to CBS affiliate KHOU-TV.
The U.S., in a brief statement, did not provide any details on why the consulate in Texas was targeted.
"The United States will not tolerate (China's) violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated (its) unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior," said the statement, which was attributed to State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters during a joint press conference with Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod that the U.S. is "setting out clear expectations for how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave."
"When they don't, we're going to take actions that protect the American people, protect our security, our national security and also protect our economy and jobs," he said when asked about the consulate's closing.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who was recently banned from China in retaliation for U.S. sanctions of party officials over the country's treatment of Muslim minority groups, tweeted that the consulate "is not a diplomatic facility."
"It is the central node of the Communist Party's vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States. Now that building must close & the spies have 72 hours to leave or face arrest," Rubio wrote. "This needed to happen."
The consulate was informed of the decision Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, calling it "an outrageous and unjustified move that will sabotage relations between the two countries."
"The unilateral closure of China's consulate general in Houston within a short period of time is an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China," Wang said at a daily news briefing in Beijing.
He warned of firm countermeasures if the U.S. does not reverse itself. Besides its embassy in Beijing, the U.S. has five consulates in mainland China, according to its website. They are in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan and Shenyang.
The Reuters news agency cites a source with direct knowledge of the matter as saying Wednesday that Beijing is considering retaliating by ordering Washington to close its consulate in Wuhan. CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan says that consulate hasn't fully reopened after closing due to the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic originated in that central Chinese city.
KHOU-TV reports authorities responded to reports of a fire at the Chinese Consulate. Witnesses said people were burning paper in what appeared to be trash cans, the Houston Chronicle reported, citing police.
Police were told that occupants were given until 4 p.m. Friday to leave the property, the Chronicle said.
Houston police said in a tweet that officers responded to "a meet the firefighter" call at the Chinese Consulate building at 3417 Montrose Blvd. The tweet said smoke was observed in an outdoor courtyard area, and that officers were not allowed to enter the building.
Wang accused the U.S. of opening Chinese diplomatic pouches without permission multiple times, confiscating Chinese items for official use and imposing restrictions on Chinese diplomats in the U.S. last October and again in June. He also said that U.S. diplomats in China engage in infiltration activities.
"If we compare the two, it is only too evident which is engaged in interference, infiltration and confrontation," Wang said.
He also said that the Chinese Embassy in Washington has received bomb and death threats, and accused the U.S. government of fanning hatred against China.
President Trump, his reelection prospects damaged by the coronavirus outbreak, has blamed China repeatedly for the pandemic. Almost every day brings a fresh U.S. action against what Mr. Trump has called the rising Asian superpower's exploitation of America.
Already this week, the Commerce Department has sanctioned 11 Chinese companies over alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region and the Justice Department said two Chinese stole intellectual property and targeted companies developing coronavirus vaccines.
Pompeo is expected to continue the attacks Thursday in a speech on U.S.-China relations at the Nixon Library in California.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, saying U.S.-China relations face their most severe challenge since diplomatic ties were established in 1979, asked recently if the two nations would be able to stay the course after a more than four-decade voyage.
There are five Chinese consulates in the U.S., as well as an embassy in Washington.