MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
China has until Friday to shut down its consulate in Houston. The Trump administration has ordered the consulate closed "in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information." That is a direct quote from the State Department. Now China is vowing to retaliate. Well, for more on this sudden and dramatic move, we are joined by NPR's John Ruwitch. Hey there, John.
JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good afternoon.
KELLY: Speaking of dramatic, can we start with how news of this order actually emerged last night? This was thanks to a local TV report.
RUWITCH: Yeah, that's right. There were local reports from Houston last night that around 8 p.m. people started noticing smoke billowing from the courtyard of the consulate. Police and firefighters showed up. They weren't allowed in because it's a diplomatic mission. And there was footage shot supposedly from a building nearby and posted online that apparently showed consulate workers putting documents into large burning and smoking drums. And then overnight, of course, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the consulate had been given 72 hours to close.
KELLY: Seventy-two hours to close, burning documents - it does all feel quite dramatic. What do we know about why the Trump administration did this?
RUWITCH: Dramatic indeed. It's extreme. The State Department said that they did this to protect American intellectual property and private information and won't tolerate violations of sovereignty. But it was really short on detail, their statement, and arguably raises a lot more questions than it answers. I would note that a day earlier, the Justice Department indicted a pair of Chinese hackers on charges of trying to steal research about a coronavirus vaccine. It's not clear if those two are related, though, the hacking charges and the consulate. But if you take a step back, the Trump administration's really taken a bunch of steps in recent weeks to try to be tough on China or appear tough on China. And Beijing has responded largely in kind. The result is that relations are at their worst probably since diplomatic ties were established in 1979.
KELLY: Let me just pause you there for a second. You said a bunch of steps in recent weeks by the Trump administration against China - would you just remind us what the context is here?
RUWITCH: Sure. The - if you go back to 2016, the Trump campaign actually had getting tough on China as one of its pillars. Not long after he took office, he launched a trade war against China. But in recent weeks, it has to be said, things have really accelerated. I mean, in July alone, the administration has sanctioned Chinese officials over human rights. It's taken steps to punish China for imposing a national security law on Hong Kong. And it's challenged China's maritime claims in the South China Sea. And the list just goes on and on. And, again, you know, China's been unhappy about it all. It's reacted often in kind but mostly with restraint.
KELLY: Which brings us up to now and again the question of the timing, why this is happening right now with the consulate in Houston.
RUWITCH: There's been growing consensus - and it's worth noting that it's bipartisan - around this idea that China is a threat - economically, militarily, ideologically, even strategically. The administration believes that China is not respecting international rules. It's stealing trade secrets. It treats American businesses, diplomats, journalists unfairly. It's broken promises to Hong Kong. But this year, you know, it's worth remembering that there's this pandemic underway. Trump has repeatedly blamed China for the pandemic and doubled down on the idea. And analysts think that that may be underpinning some of these recent steps to some extent. You know, taking strong measures against China makes headlines. It creates a distraction from domestic problems. And the administration's handling of the pandemic is arguably a big domestic problem. It also plays into the upcoming election with Trump lagging in the polls. You know, getting tough on China played pretty well for him in 2016, and he's hoping it will do so again this year.
KELLY: Right, right. Meanwhile, China, we mentioned, is vowing to hit back. What could retaliation look like?
RUWITCH: Well, China will most likely respond in kind, probably by closing a U.S. consulate in China. But there's also symbolism here that's not going to be lost on China. The Houston consulate, it was the first one that China opened in the U.S. And it opened it in 1979 after then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping visited the United States and visited Houston, went to a rodeo. There's a famous picture of him with a cowboy hat on. So there's symbolism here. It speaks to a much more optimistic time in relations between the two countries.
KELLY: NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch, thanks so much.
RUWITCH: Thank you.
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