China yesterday ordered the closure of the United States consulate in Chengdu in retaliation for the abrupt shutting of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas.
The move is a "legitimate and necessary response" to "unreasonable" US actions, said a statement from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, squarely blaming the Americans for the current state of diplomatic ties.
"China has decided to revoke the licence for the establishment and operation of the US Consulate General in Chengdu and put forward specific requirements for the Consulate General to stop all business and activities," the statement said.
US diplomats have until Monday morning to leave the mission in Chengdu, Sichuan province. Since the announcement, state broadcaster CCTV has set up a live stream from outside the consulate, drawing nearly 30 million viewers despite the lack of activity.
Beijing said the Chengdu consulate was chosen because some consular staff had been engaging in activity that "did not match their identities, interfered in China's internal affairs and harmed China's security interests".
"The Chinese side has made representations on this many times, and the US side is well aware of this," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin in a regular press briefing yesterday afternoon.
According to the US Embassy website, the Chengdu consulate oversees the western Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou, as well as Chongqing municipality and Tibet.
In mainland China, the US also has diplomatic missions in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang and Wuhan, besides the embassy in Beijing.
Established in 1985, the Chengdu consulate has been mired in controversy before. In 2013, China demanded an explanation from the US after news reports said a top-secret map leaked by fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden showed surveillance facilities at American embassies and consulates worldwide - with the Chengdu consulate among them.
A year earlier, in 2012, senior security official Wang Lijun made a dash to the consulate while fleeing from his powerful boss Bo Xilai, then party chief of nearby Chongqing.
Ties between China and the US are at their worst in years, with the world's two largest economies at odds over a range of issues including trade, espionage and Beijing's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Trump administration, in ordering the closure of China's consulate in Houston on Tuesday, cited the need to protect American intellectual property and intelligence. It described the mission as the "epicentre" of China's military-backed industrial espionage.
Shortly after the ordered closure, witnesses in Houston saw documents being burnt in open bins in the consulate compound.
Chinese diplomats were given 72 hours - until yesterday afternoon US time - to vacate the premises.
As the deadline loomed, Chinese Consul General Cai Wei vowed to keep the consulate open despite US demands. "We are still operating normally, so we will see what will happen (on Friday)," he told American news website Politico in an interview, but declined to elaborate.
Beijing's retaliatory announcement came just hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Chinese people and "free nations of the world" to change the behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party, in a major policy speech.
It caps a series of speeches in recent weeks from senior US officials highlighting what they said was the imbalanced nature of the relationship between the world's two largest economies.
Beijing has hit back at Mr Pompeo, saying his speech was filled with ideological bias, and also called on the US to discard its "Cold War mentality".