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International relations

US points to Chinese medical espionage in battle of the consulates

Washington shields research as two powers race to find COVID-19 vaccine

A plainclothes U.S. security official enters the back door of China's consulate general in Houston, Texas, after Chinese employees left the building July 24.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The U.S. is doubling down on claims of Chinese consulates facilitating espionage after it ordered the one in Houston to close, citing the city's medical research scene.

In a Friday call with journalists, a senior State Department official pointed to Houston's "medical connection" as a reason for singling out the consulate there.

This came hours after Beijing gave the U.S. Embassy three days -- or by Monday -- to shut down its consulate general in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

China had urged the U.S. to cancel its shutdown order for the Houston consulate. A group of apparently U.S. officials was seen forcing open a back door to the building on Friday, shortly after the shutdown order took effect, according to Reuters. The men did not respond when asked who they were and were seen padlocking a door on a different side of the building, the news service reported.

The U.S. on Tuesday had told the Houston outpost to close by Friday. Also on Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced the indictment of two Chinese nationals and residents on charges including conspiracy to steal trade secrets, with COVID-19 vaccine research one target of hacks allegedly carried out with the Ministry of State Security.

On Friday's call, a senior Justice Department official acknowledged that consulates of foreign countries will engage in intelligence gathering but said that "the sum total of the Houston consulate's activities went well over the line of what we are willing to accept," according to the call transcript.

The two countries are racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine as the global death toll continues to rise, with the U.S. this week announcing a $1.95 billion contract with New York-based Pfizer to produce millions of doses by end of the year.

The U.S. said Friday that it has taken into custody a Chinese medical scientist -- allegedly a member of the People's Liberation Army -- who prosecutors say sought refuge at the San Francisco consulate to evade arrest.

A photo from a U.S. court document showing Tang Juan in a People's Liberation Army uniform. 

Tang Juan, working as a researcher at the University of California, Davis, was recently charged in the U.S. with visa fraud for allegedly lying on her application about a still-active membership in the PLA and employment by its Fourth Military Medical University.

The Justice Department did not detail whether the San Francisco consulate had turned Tang over. The Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that closing more Chinese consulates was "always possible," prompting speculation that San Francisco might be next.

In a blistering speech Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for an end to "blind engagement" with China and warned of the prospect of a "Chinese century."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Friday that "the U.S. move seriously breached international law, the basic norms of international relations, and the terms of the China-U.S. Consular Convention" and that "the measure taken by China is a legitimate and necessary response to the unjustified act."

Wang also accused "some staff" at the U.S.'s Chengdu consulate of interfering in China's internal affairs and undermining its security interests.

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