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Why the U.S. ordered a Chinese consulate closed — and what it means for foreign policy

The Trump administration has ordered China to close its Houston consulate -- the latest action in an escalating fight between the two countries. The State Department cited concerns about espionage and intellectual property theft as justification for the move. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Yale Law School’s Susan Thornton, former acting assistant secretary of state, and author Gordon Chang.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A global fight escalates again. Today's move to close the Chinese Consulate in Houston is the latest action by the Trump administration against Beijing.

    Nick Schifrin reports on what is at stake.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the courtyard of China's Houston consulate, Chinese staff in a hurry. They burned documents in drums last night, after the administration ordered the consulate closed, citing a pattern of Chinese theft and espionage.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    We are setting out clear expectations for how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave. And when they don't, we're going to take actions that protect the American people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Administration and intelligence officials tell "PBS NewsHour," the Chinese have used the Houston consulate as a hub for espionage. Just yesterday, the Department of Justice for the first time accused Chinese hackers of working for both personal gain and the Communist Party.

  • John Demers:

    China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea in that shameful club of nations that provide a safe haven for cyber-criminals, in exchange for those criminals being on call for the benefit of the state.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But senior officials tell "PBS NewsHour," today was also about diplomatic reciprocity.

    In January, out of fears of COVID, the U.S. evacuated its Wuhan consulate. It has not reopened, because of a dispute over whether U.S. employees have to quarantine and take COVID-19 tests upon arrival at Chinese airports.

    Longer term, U.S. officials say they want to reduce their footprint in China. In addition to the Beijing embassy, the U.S. has five consulates on the Chinese mainland and the Hong Kong consulate. Senior officials say they have accepted the likely permanent closure of one consulate, and intend to move it elsewhere in Asia.

    Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin warned of that likely closure today.

  • Wang Wenbin (through translator):

    China strongly condemns the decision and urges the U.S. side to immediately recall the wrong decision. Otherwise, China will take legitimate and necessary countermeasures.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Publicly, Chinese diplomats emphasize mutual respect and criticize U.S. policy as self-defeating.

    Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a major speech on July the 9th.

  • Wang Yi (through translator):

    The current China policy of the U.S. is based on ill-informed strategic miscalculation, and is fraught with emotions and whims and McCarthyist bigotry. Its suspicion about China, which is totally uncalled for, has reached a point of paranoia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the administration is clear it will continue to target and penalize China until its behavior changes.

    After Beijing passed legislation that restricted Hong Kong's freedoms, President Trump signed a bill that allowed new sanctions.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Thank you very much, everybody.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And then a series of speeches, National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien on the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP.

  • Robert O’Brien:

    The CCP's stated goal is to create a community of common destiny for mankind and to remake the entire world, according to the CCP.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    FBI Director Christopher Wray:

  • Christopher Wray:

    If you are an American adult, it is more likely than not that China has stolen your personal data.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Attorney General William Barr:

  • William Barr:

    The ultimate ambition of China's rulers isn't to trade with the United States. It is to raid the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S.-China relations are at their lowest point since relations began in 1979. Take the case of Houston.

  • Man:

    The eyes of Texas were on Deng Xiaoping today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 1979, then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping visited the city and the Johnson Space Center. Houston was the first Chinese consulate in the U.S.

    But while some China-watchers worry about the confrontation, the Trump administration says it's overdue.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    For an awful long time, our policies simply reflected allowing China to engage in behavior that was radically unreciprocal, enormously unfair to the American people, and, frankly, put America's national security at risk. And so we have begun to turn that around.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we explore today's decision and overall U.S.-China policy with Susan Thornton. She had a 28-year career as an American diplomat focusing on Asia. She's now a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School. And Gordon Chang lived and worked in mainland China and Hong Kong for nearly two decades, where he practiced law. His latest book is "The Great U.S.-China Tech War."

    Welcome, both of you, to the "NewsHour."

    Susan Thornton, let me begin with you.

    Do you believe the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston is in U.S. interests?

  • Susan Thornton:

    I would just put this in context, to begin with, and note that, you know, closure of a consulate outside of wartime is an exceedingly rare move in diplomacy.

    So, I guess, this is the only unilateral closure of a U.S. consulate that I'm aware of, other than the Russian San Francisco consulate in 2017, which was a very different circumstance and involved a lot of discussions with the Russians ahead of time.

    I think many other countries share our concerns about China, the challenges that it poses to international law and order and to our economic competitiveness, but this kind of action gives the impression of recklessness. And it's not really clear to me what it accomplishes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gordon Chang, recklessness and not clear what it accomplishes.

    Do you believe the closure was in U.S. interests?

  • Gordon Chang:

    Yes, I certainly believe that this was the right thing to do.

    The State Department talked about protecting U.S. intellectual property. And the Houston consulate is known as a hub for espionage. We have been talking to China about hacking and all the rest of these things for about three decades, and yet we haven't gotten anywhere.

    We had the agreement with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in September 2015 for countries not to hack each other for commercial purposes. We had the Section 301 tariffs that were supposed to be a remedy for the theft of U.S. intellectual property, but China has continued to steal U.S. I.P. in the hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

    Yes, you could say this is unfortunate, closing the consulate, but we had to do something to try to get China to stop this dangerous activity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Susan Thornton, as we just laid out in the piece that aired right before we started, there have been a series of speeches by U.S. administration officials laying out some of the concerns, including the ones that Gordon just mentioned.

    Do you believe that kind of rhetoric is helpful toward achieving what the U.S. is trying to do with China?

  • Susan Thornton:

    Well, I think, from where I sit, the real problem is that we need a very nuanced and thoughtful strategy to take on the very complicated challenge that China presents.

    And, right now, it seems like we have a tough attitude and a lot of provocative measures that don't account for a strategy and don't have any clear accomplishments.

    I mean, our trade balance is worse than it was when we started this so-called China strategy. Our position in the Asia-Pacific has deteriorated. And I think a lot of countries are looking at what we're doing and not sure that we have that kind of clear strategy thought through.

    And I think I will just associate myself with the words of a pretty wise elder statesman I heard yesterday, who said that, in this competition, if China comes out on top, it will be because things happened in the U.S., not because of things that happened in China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gordon Chang, respond to those arguments that Susan Thornton sees a tough attitude, but no strategy, and actually negative consequences to U.S. decisions.

  • Gordon Chang:

    Well, I know Susan talked about a thoughtful and nuanced strategy, and that certainly sounds good to the ear.

    The problem is, we have had thoughtful and nuanced strategies for decades. And while we have done this, China has not moved in the right directions. You know, we had hoped to integrate China into the international system, that it would enmesh itself and become benign.

    But, unfortunately, China has moved in very belligerent and provocative directions. And so we need to change strategy. Now, this strategy is pretty young. And I can understand her comments that it doesn't seem like it's working.

    But I actually do believe that it is. But, in any event, I don't think we had any choice but to try something different, because what we had been doing for decades just wasn't working.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Susan Thornton, if I could ask specifically about what the Trump administration has done and has done something different, as Gordon Chang just put it, new visa requirements on state-sponsored reporters, sanctioning individuals deemed responsible for the crackdown in Xinjiang, extended bans on the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, stated China's South China Sea claims are without merit, began to punish China over Hong Kong, et cetera.

    There's actually a longer list.

    Do you believe that those decisions, some of these decisions, have been the right ones?

  • Susan Thorton:

    Look, Nick, I don't want to get into every single decision and the merits and demerits of it. And we don't have time.

    But what I would say is that the U.S. serves a special role in the world because of our values and our example. And in many of these measures, what we are doing, in pursuing reciprocity with China, is that we're going down into the ditch with China, and we're trying to see who can go lower.

    And I think, at the end of the day, the Chinese are going to win that fight, and I don't think it's a fight worthy of the United States. We have always maintained the openness of our society as a positive attribute. We have been confident in our foreign policy and in our economic competitiveness.

    And I think we should remain so, and I think we can beat China on that kind of a strategy, and not this kind of provocation after provocation, and going into the ditch with them. That's my view.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gordon Chang, when I ask senior U.S. administration officials what their goal is, it is to, as you know, change Chinese behavior, both short term and long term. Do you think that's possible?

  • Gordon Chang:

    It may be very difficult, because China's brand of communism, I think, is not capable of reform.

    You know, we have tried to do that for five decades, and we have not achieved the results everybody was hoping for. And we may very well have to decide with regard to China the same decisions that were made in the 1940s and 1950s with regard to the Soviet Union, that this was a competition which, unfortunately, was a zero-sum game.

    It was China's existential challenge to the United States. And if we're going to defend ourselves, it's not going into the ditch with China. It's actually trying to preserve our way of life, our freedom, our economy, and we are going to have to take measures that will cost us.

    We cannot think we will engage in five decades of misguided policy and not end up costing ourselves as we try to extricate the United States and the international system.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gordon Chang, Susan Thornton, two sides of this debate.

    Thank you very much to you both.

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