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American Consulate In Chengdu Closes After China Makes Retaliatory Move


The U.S. consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu closed its doors today. Americans walked out just 72 hours after China told them to go. It's in retaliation for the U.S. shutting down China's consulate in Houston, Texas. Our next guest is Rui Zhong, an expert on U.S.-China relations who has studied both there and here and is now at the Wilson Center, a think tank here in Washington. Welcome to the program.

RUI ZHONG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: How serious is the closing of consulates?

ZHONG: So consulate offices, they're not just government outposts. But they also serve as clearinghouses for visas and other legal document gateways for people that are living abroad - so Chinese diaspora people in both the south and southwest United States, and for Chengdu, Americans that are living abroad that are in native consulate services. So this really cuts off a pathway for international travelers in both China and the United States.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking that that generally discourages cooperation between the two countries on a person-to-person level. The idea of basic relations between the people of the two countries is hindered here. Is that right?

ZHONG: Yes. And this really follows a more broad policy trends. We've seen visa availability for students interested in studying in the United States become an issue of concern given earlier guidance from ICE in June, something that definitely sends a message to high schoolers, middle schoolers, parents that are making future education plans. On the U.S., we have the shutdown of the Fulbright program in Hong Kong and China that really impacts the level of higher level expertise on China and East Asia.

INSKEEP: Now, we should note, this latest round was started by the United States, which closed the Houston consulate first. And the U.S. said there was reason, that Chinese officials there were doing things they should not be doing. Is there evidence in public to confirm that claim by the United States?

ZHONG: As of right now, I think the State Department has flagged potential intelligence operatives using the consulate as a way to sort of hide from U.S. law enforcement. But in terms of information gathering, I think we're still sort of waiting on more information to come publicly available.

INSKEEP: And you mention that it comes in this wider context of the United States pushing on China, China pushing on the United States. I want to start with the U.S. perspective on this. You're there - you're here in Washington. You're studying the Trump administration's approach to China. Is it clear to you that some of the president's advisers want a rupture with China?

ZHONG: Well, definitely, in the medium to long term, we're likely to see China's government continue to really respond and retaliate to American policy actions. When reporters from Chinese media outlets, state media outlets, were expelled, we saw a really broad crackdown in what types of foreign correspondents from American media outlets were allowed in China. And so this really comes as a really broad slate of tough-on-China policy. But who gets to pay the price is often American organizations, individuals and communities that are not usually considered policy actors.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm just trying to figure out what the administration motivation might be here. Do they just want to tweak the rules with China? Or are they looking for a break, they want a kind of cold war with China, decoupling, as as they've said in economic terms?

ZHONG: Well, Secretary Pompeo in a speech last week had essentially signaled that engagement with China was too optimistic. And China has, quote, unquote, bitten the hands that fed in integrating into a globalized economy. So essentially, he signaled that the new norm was distrust and verify. And as we're observing policy coming out, I think this is what we should keep expecting out of Washington towards China.

INSKEEP: And in a couple of seconds, Xi Jinping wants the same thing?

ZHONG: Xi Jinping definitely has pushed for great power competition. And certainly, personable relationship with Trump aside, this hardening and sort of new competitive angle is something that we're also seeing out of Beijing.

INSKEEP: Rui Zhong of the Wilson Center. Thanks so much.

ZHONG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.