The Chinese flag flies outside of the Chinese consulate in Houston after the US State Department ordered China to close the consulate in Houston, Texas, July 22, 2020. - US-Chinese tensions, already rising because of the coronavirus pandemic and crackdown in Hong Kong, ratcheted up another notch on Wednesday as the US ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston within 72 hours. China reacted angrily to the US move, which came a day after the unveiling of a US indictment of two Chinese nationals for allegedly hacking hundreds of companies worldwide.

Source: Ryan Saavedra

Top U.S. officials said in the hours following the revelation that the United States ordered the Chinese General Consulate in Houston to close that the move was carried out because the facility was a “massive spy center” that was stealing information from Americans and running influence operations in the U.S.

“The United States will not tolerate the PRC’s (People Republic of China) violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated the PRC’s unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior,” the State Department said in a statement Tuesday. “We have directed the closure of PRC Consulate General Houston, in order to protect American intellectual property and American’s [sic] private information.”

The State Department said Wednesday that China had been engaging “for years in massive illegal spying and influence operations throughout the United States against U.S. government officials and American citizens.”

Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell said the move to close the facility was “long overdue” and that the alleged criminal activity that the Chinese were committing at the facility had accelerated since the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in China.

Videos surfaced this week that showed Chinese officials burning classified documents after receiving notice that they were being forced out of the country.

“China’s Houston consulate is a massive spy center, forcing it to close is long overdue,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said in a tweet, later adding: “China’s consulate in Houston 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. This needed to happen.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the FBI has interviewed suspected members of the People’s Liberation Army in more than 25 cities:

FBI agents have interviewed Chinese researchers suspected of being undeclared members of the People’s Liberation Army in more than 25 cities, according to some U.S. officials. In some instances, staff at Chinese consulates helped instruct some researchers on security, reminding them to delete information from their electronic devices, the officials said.

Stilwell said that one of the events that triggered the closure of the facility was a Chinese official working with a Chinese state-owned airline to “put unidentified passengers on a charter flight meant for Chinese students departing Houston amid the coronavirus travel restrictions,” The Journal added.

The Chinese Communist Party is “pursuing a campaign of intellectual property theft, economic espionage, cyber intrusions that target businesses — big and small — all across the country and our academic research institutions,” FBI Director Chris Wray said last month. “And it’s everything from Fortune 100 companies to startups. It’s agriculture. It’s high tech. It’s aviation. It’s health care. As I said before, it’s our academic research institutions.”

“There’s no country that presents a broader, more comprehensive threat to America’s innovation, to economic security, and to our democratic ideas than China does,” Wray told Fox News. “Just to give you some context for that. Just as we’re sitting here having this conversation, the FBI has over 2,000 active investigations that trace back to the government of China.”

“The FBI is opening a new counterintelligence investigation that ties back to China every 10 hours,” Wray added. “So you put some of those things – and that’s sort of just the tip of the iceberg.”

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