RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. has ordered China to close down its consulate in Houston, Texas, by Friday, and Beijing is now threatening retaliation over what it calls a, quote, "unprecedented escalation" of tensions. NPR's Emily Feng is covering this from Beijing. Good morning, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Has either country given an explanation for why the Chinese consulate is being closed?
FENG: No. And we only got a hint that something was up when, late Tuesday night, U.S. time, local Houston media began reporting that Chinese employees at the consulate there appeared to be burning documents in the consulate's courtyard in metal barrels. And then a few hours later, China's foreign ministry here in Beijing confirmed the U.S. had, quote, "abruptly demanded" they close down the consulate there, move all of its employees out by this Friday. So they were given about 72 hours' notice to do so.
Beijing also alleges the U.S. confiscated and opened Chinese diplomatic mail pouches this past October and June, which - according to an international treaty called the Vienna Convention, to which the U.S. and China are party to - that is not allowed. You cannot search diplomatic personnel and pouches. And this is what gives diplomats immunity in the countries in which they serve.
The U.S. has told NPR that the consulate was shut down, quote, "in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information." And the State Department also said that this Vienna Convention also requires foreign missions to not interfere in internal affairs of the country in which they're based. So neither country has given a satisfactory explanation, but they've hinted at some kind of state interference on both sides.
MARTIN: Wow. So I mentioned in the intro that China is threatening to retaliate. What form could that take?
FENG: China's Foreign Ministry did not specify what that retaliation could look like, but a state newspaper, which in the past has signaled China's policy direction, said on Twitter today that China was likely going to shut down a U.S. consulate, likely in Hong Kong. The U.S. also runs consulates in six other cities, including Shanghai and Wuhan, which could also be targets. I should mention, though, that the U.S. consulate in Wuhan is still closed because of the pandemic, and many other consulates around China are running on skeleton staff because the U.S. and China have not been able to agree on the conditions under which U.S. diplomats return to China.
MARTIN: I mean, where does this leave the relationship? There's already been all of this tension between the U.S. and China - sanctions that the U.S. has put on Chinese officials over Hong Kong and Chinese human rights abuses and then corresponding sanctions on U.S. lawmakers. I mean, what does this consulate closure portend for the relationship?
FENG: It's extremely serious. It may be even more serious than sanctions because, as contentious as the U.S.-China relationship had become this year, we at least had diplomats and officials from both countries who were on the ground and who were meeting and talking to each other. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic began to complicate that because international travel shut down, and many U.S. diplomats were evacuated out of China, and they have not returned. But now we have the outright removal of a major Chinese consulate in the U.S. and the threatened removal of an American consulate.
So we are seeing a decoupling in the actual foreign policy apparatus between the two countries. And this suggests that we'll have less interaction and more conflict between the two governments because consulates are a base for diplomats to understand policy on the ground, to speak to people and to conduct outreach, to promote understanding of each other's domestic policies. Without them, the two countries understand far less about each other.
FENG: Today's move implicitly signals the U.S. and soon China...
FENG: ...Just do not see official dialogue as productive.
MARTIN: NPR's Emily Feng. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.