News Brief: COVID-19 In Florida, American Consulate Closed, Chinese Nationals Charged
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Republicans were planning to hold part of their upcoming convention in the city of Jacksonville, Fla. But not anymore.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I looked at my team. And I said, the timing for this event is not right, just not right with what's happened recently - the flare-up in Florida - to have a big convention. It's not the right time.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Not the right time because as of now, the U.S. has more than 4 million coronavirus cases. Florida alone reported more than 10,000 new infections yesterday.
GREENE: And NPR's Greg Allen is in Florida. He joins us from Miami. Hi, Greg.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: Let's start with this decision to cancel the Jacksonville portion of the Republican convention. How disappointing is this to people in the party?
ALLEN: Well, I think the more common feeling here is, actually, relief. It became a very difficult thing to figure out how this was going to happen. Jacksonville's Mayor, Lenny Curry, is the former head of the Republican Party here in Florida. And he lobbied to host it, you know, you recall after President Trump said he wanted to move it out of Charlotte, N.C.
ALLEN: But then, you know, the coronavirus cases really began to surge here in Florida, including in Jacksonville. This week, Jacksonville sheriff said, given the pandemic and the short notice, he would not be able to provide adequate security for the convention unless something changed. And then after the president's announcement yesterday, both the sheriff and the mayor released a statement saying that they appreciated him, quote, "considering our public health and safety concerns and making this incredibly difficult decision." You know, this avoids the unenviable scenario for Republican officials in Florida for having to say no to the president.
GREENE: Right, so a sigh of relief in many ways. Well, what is the situation? Ten thousand new cases yesterday alone. I mean, is this just still getting worse?
ALLEN: Yes. I think so. I mean, I don't think there's any other way to cut it. The state set a new record yesterday, with 173 deaths from COVID-19. That's the most we've had yet. You know, as you mentioned at the top, more than 10,000 new infections. At this rate, Florida will soon have more cases of the coronavirus than New York. But doctors and officials say they do see some signs the surge in cases may have peaked here. Governor DeSantis says a key indicator of the number of people coming in with flu and COVID-19 symptoms to hospital emergency departments is down.
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RON DESANTIS: When people are not coming to the ED in as big a numbers as they were two weeks ago - and actually, it's less than half. The last few days have been less than half than what it was the first week of July. You know, that is a positive trend.
ALLEN: You know, the rate of people testing positive for the virus is also starting to come down very slowly. And these are all good signs.
GREENE: Yeah. I mean, have hospitals been able to keep up despite this massive surge?
ALLEN: Yes. Across the state, we hear repeatedly from doctors and administrators that they have adequate capacity. Some hospitals, especially smaller ones, you know, in rural communities are seeing their intensive care units full. But Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, says, statewide, you know, ICUs are only 85% full. Doctors point out that many of those in ICUs aren't even, you know, COVID-19 patients. Even in Miami, which is where we're seeing most of the cases, hospitals are still doing some elective procedures, urgent and emergency surgeries. And they have the ability to add beds as needed, they say. You know, the biggest concern is staffing.
GREENE: Tell me more about Miami where you are. You say it's the epicenter.
ALLEN: Yeah. I mean, we're still seeing over 2,000 cases a day here just in Miami-Dade County alone. The positivity rate is still near 20%. Officials say orders limiting gatherings, though, and requiring face coverings are working. Most the spread here, though, is among friends and family members, especially people who live in multigenerational households. The mayor here in Miami asked people to start thinking about wearing masks at home just to prevent that kind of spread.
GREENE: Wow. All right. That's the situation in Miami and in the state of Florida. NPR's Greg Allen. Greg, thanks a lot.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
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GREENE: Guess you could say this is how tit for tat works in diplomacy.
MARTIN: Right. So here's what happened. Earlier this week, the U.S. ordered China to close down its consulate in Houston. They were supposed to do that by today. Beijing warned of retaliation. And now we've got that. Today, China moved to shut down the U.S. consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu.
GREENE: And NPR's Emily Feng has been following all of this. She is in Beijing. Hi, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: So tell me more about this decision that, I guess, was not all that unexpected from Beijing today.
FENG: Right. China said this was reciprocity for the abrupt closing of its consulate this week. And then today, the foreign ministry added that they closed the Chengdu consulate because several employees there had engaged in activities not in accordance with their stated identities and interfered in China's internal affairs. So a cryptic line that seems to refer to espionage. But the ministry did not offer more details when we asked about what those activities might be.
The U.S. government has also not given a detailed explanation about why it decided to shut down China's consulate in Houston. The State Department kind of cryptically said that it was to protect American intellectual property. The Department's top official for East Asia, David Stilwell, said several people there were helping informants who were collecting information for the Chinese military. And then yesterday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said they closed down that consulate because it was a hub of spying and IP theft. China, of course, denies this and calls those allegations talking nonsense.
GREENE: I mean, let's just think about this. In the last year, we've had a trade war between these two countries, numerous rounds of sanctions on each other's officials and companies and now the closing of these consulates. I mean, how significant is this next step here?
FENG: It is very serious because we are seeing the beginnings of a rupture in the foreign policy institutions that keep communication and people flowing between these two countries. What's not clear right now is whether the diplomats at the two consulates in Chengdu and Houston respectively will be allowed to stay in the countries where they were assigned or if they're going to be expelled once the consulates are shut. Neither government responded to my queries about this. But in China, foreign policy experts and officials are defiant. I spoke to Chu Shulong, who is an international relations expert at Beijing's Tsinghua University, about this today.
CHU SHULONG: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: He's saying, "Without the U.S., China will survive. We will thrive. The U.S. cannot change the trend of China's development. Our technology and military will continue to progress if not a little more slowly." He also said that he fears military confrontation between the U.S. and China is a real possibility in the South China Sea, which is where the U.S. contests China's territorial claims. And, he says, we might even see a severance in U.S.-China relations.
GREENE: Military confrontation - I mean, we're getting to that point, potentially?
FENG: Not yet. But U.S.-China relations are at their worst point in over 30 years. And how this relationship proceeds will depend largely on what the U.S. chooses to do in the next four months in the run up to the November presidential elections. In China, the approach is Trump is playing up his anti-China rhetoric to play to his voter base. And the hope is that after the presidential elections, he will calm down a little bit. And that's, in part, why they chose the U.S. consulate in Chengdu to close down and not a bigger consulate, such as America's Hong Kong or Shanghai consulate.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thanks a lot.
FENG: Thanks, David.
GREENE: And let's dig deeper into these broader tensions between the two countries. The Justice Department says that four Chinese nationals doing research in the United States committed visa fraud.
MARTIN: Three of the defendants are in federal custody. The fourth is a fugitive and is holed up at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.
GREENE: And NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been following this. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: Tell me more, if you can, about these four people and what they're charged with exactly.
LUCAS: So the Justice Department says that these four individuals got visas to come do research in the U.S. They were doing research in cutting-edge fields, things like neurology, medicine, machine learning, artificial intelligence. But the Justice Department says that these folks lied on their visa applications by denying that they had links to or were members of the Chinese military.
One defendant, for instance, allegedly works in a Chinese military lab and holds a rank equivalent to a major. Another is allegedly a uniformed officer in China's air force. In court documents recently filed in California, federal prosecutors say that these individuals appear to be part of a Chinese government program to send military scientists to the U.S. under false pretense with cover stories, so to speak. And American officials say that this is part of a broader effort by China to steal research and intellectual property from the United States, including from universities. And this is a huge source of tension in U.S.-China relations.
GREENE: Well, let me ask you. As Rachel mentioned, one of these individuals, we believe, is hiding in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco?
LUCAS: That's right. Prosecutors say that this woman was a researcher at the University of California, Davis. She said on her application that she'd never served in the military. Investigators say that they found photos of her in a military uniform and evidence that she worked at a Chinese air force medical university. At some point after an FBI interview with her in June, prosecutors say that she fled to the consulate in San Francisco. And the feds say that she is, in fact, still there.
GREENE: Well, I mean, I was talking to Emily about the broader relationship right now. And, you know, I mean, things are just so tense between these two countries.
GREENE: How do these cases fit into that picture?
LUCAS: American officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and the attorney general - yesterday, we heard the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They have been taking a harder line against China and what the U.S. views as a range of malicious activity on China's part and, in particular, economic espionage. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently said that the FBI opens a new China-related counterintelligence case every 10 hours, every 10 hours.
LUCAS: And U.S. officials say that China is using all sorts of people, including researchers, like in this case here, in its spying operations and economic theft.
GREENE: Ryan, I want to ask you about one other thing, other Justice Department news. The inspector general, now, it looks like, is opening investigation into recent actions against protesters that we saw in the city of Portland and then also in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. What more can you tell us?
LUCAS: Right. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said that he would look at the use of force in Portland this month. He says that he'll coordinate that investigation with the Department of Homeland Security inspector general. And that's important because a lot of the allegations of wrongdoing are actually against DHS agents.
And then, the inspector general is also going to look at the Justice Department's role responding to protests, as you mentioned here, in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. And that, of course, is where federal law enforcement forcibly cleared protesters - that was back in June - ahead of the president's walk to a nearby church, which, obviously, was quite controversial and drew a lot of criticism.
GREENE: Thank you for covering all of this for us, Ryan.
LUCAS: My pleasure.
GREENE: That's NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.
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MARTIN: Before we say goodbye today, I just want to acknowledge a mistake that I made yesterday in Up First. I was talking about the Trump administration's decision to send in federal agents to Chicago, Kansas City, Albuquerque. And I talked about those agents as being federal troops. I should not have used that word to describe them. These are federal agents or federal investigators. And I apologize for the error.
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