The Trump administration ordered the Chinese Consulate in Houston to close by 4 p.m. Friday, a stunning escalation of tensions between Washington and Beijing, when relations are already frayed over issues including trade and COVID-19.
And the move could have serious repercussions for Houston, which is caught in the middle and home to tens of thousands of Chinese Americans.
From an office building on Houston’s Montrose Boulevard, the Chinese Consulate directs government, economic, and cultural activity across the southern U.S., from Texas to Florida. Jon Taylor with the University of Texas at San Antonio said it’s a massive operation.
“This is really uprooting a lot of people, and it’s going to be disruptive to Houston and to the Texas economy, because of the links that businesses and corporations have in China,” Taylor said.
The People’s Republic of China is Houston’s second-largest trading partner after Mexico. U.S. Census Bureau figures show more than 72,000 residents of Chinese origin live in greater Houston.
Firefighters were seen outside the consulate Tuesday night, responding to reports of papers being burned on the consulate grounds. They were barred entry, according to reports.
Federal authorities say alleged espionage led them to close the consulate. The move comes a day after two Chinese nationals were indicted for intellectual property theft in Washington State.
“It’s no secret that there has been speculation for some time that the PRC consulate here in Houston might have been engaged in such activities,” said Hans Stockton with the University of Saint Thomas. “That’s where the State Department needs to provide evidence to the American population, as well as the Chinese, I would imagine.”
Attorney and former City Council member Gordon Quan said the Chinese community in Houston recently held a forum with the FBI to raise concerns about ongoing investigations of its members.
“It has never been proven that these concerns were actual[ly] factual, although people have lost their jobs and been terminated in the interim,” he said
Quan is concerned that the consulate’s shutdown will damage U.S.-Chinese relations. At the very least, it’s likely to bring retaliation overseas in the form of Beijing closing an American consulate.
And closer to home, he worries it will fan discrimination.
“During this COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been recorded over 2,100 episodes against Chinese: calling them names, harassing them,” Quan said, adding some episodes have happened here in Houston. “People have attacked, verbally, Chinese Americans, have attacked their restaurants. So, anything like this, we’re concerned, would just add fuel to the fire.”