Beijing/Chengdu: China on Monday said it took control of the US consulate in Chengdu after it was formally closed as per Beijing's directive in retaliation to America's move to shut down the Chinese diplomatic mission in Houston.
“At 10 a.m July 27, as required by the Chinese side, the US Consulate General in Chengdu was closed,” a press release by Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Monday. Chengdu is the capital of southwest China's Sichuan province.
“China’s competent authorities then entered through the front entrance and took over the premises,” it said.
The American flag over the building was lowered at dawn, according to Chinese state-run broadcaster CCTV, and onlookers were moved back as a heavy police presence surrounded the consulate, which Beijing ordered to shut on Friday in a tit-for-tat move.
Last week, the US government ordered the closure of China's consulate in Houston, Texas, claiming the mission had been involved in a larger Chinese espionage effort using diplomatic facilities around the US.
The US State Department in a statement on Monday expressed disappointment over the closure, saying the consulate “has stood at the centre of our relations with the people in Western China, including Tibet, for 35 years.”
“We are disappointed by the Chinese Communist Party's decision and will strive to continue our outreach to the people in this important region through our other posts in China,” the statement said.
Strict traffic controls were put in place around the US consulate premises before the closure.
Shortly before 11 a.m, several cars, a white ambulance, and dozens of Chinese workers were seen leaving the Chengdu Consulate as dozens of people lingered nearby, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.
Several side streets, as well as a main road leading to the consulate were blocked, with dozens of policemen guarding the intersections.
Cranes hoisted containers inside the main entrance of the US Consulate, while crowds gathered to witness the "historic" moment, taking photos and recording videos, state-run Global Times reported.
Since Saturday, people and vehicles were frequently seen going in and out of the consulate and locals have quietly gathered behind the police cordon in front of the main gate of the Consulate.
Ellen Hu, a 30-year-old Chengdu resident among the crowd, said her office opened at 9.30a.m, but she had decided to wait until 10a.m to see the closure of the consulate.
“To witness the closure is more important,” she said. “It only happens once in decades,” she told the Post.
Late on Sunday night, three semi-trucks and a crane truck entered the compound, guided by a handful of workers standing near the gate.
The consulate, which opened in 1985, has almost 200 staff, including about 150 locally hired employees.
The two countries closed down their consulates as the ties between the world's two largest economies reached an all-time low
Tensions have been rising between the US and China for some time. President Donald Trump's administration has clashed repeatedly with Beijing over trade and the coronavirus pandemic, as well as China's imposition of a controversial new security law on Hong Kong. Washington has been critical of Beijing's crackdown on its Uygur Muslims in the restive Xinjiang province.
There was a festive atmosphere outside the consulate building in Chengdu almost as soon as the closure was announced on Friday. People gathered to take selfies, photos and videos, with some travelling from across China to witness the historic event.
Sales doubled at an ice jelly stall opposite the consulate, according to one of its employees, surnamed Tang.
“I can sell about 300 bowls of ice jelly now,” she said.
“People have even flown from Xian (in the northwest) or Hainan (China's southernmost island) to be part of this event,” Tang said.
Xu Junqing from the northern province of Hebei, said he had been visiting his son in Chengdu last week and had come to the consulate on Saturday and Sunday.
“I think most people are just curious. But I think it will reopen again, because if China and the US stop cooperation, there's no good to the whole world,” Xu said.
The tit-for-tat consulate closures have led to a sharp deterioration in relations between the two countries, but experts said their relationship could worsen further.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University, told the Post that “the US has made up its mind to deal with China in all aspects. So in the following six months, until the new President moves into the White House (after the US elections), the possibility of further law enforcement against China, including on infiltration and intelligence activities, cannot be underestimated.”
Shen Dingli, a professor at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, said China-US ties would keep deteriorating and the US presidential election would accelerate the downward spiral.
“The two countries are having a deep decoupling and it's even possible for them to break diplomatic relations,” he said.
“It was impossible before because of globalisation but now the two countries are dramatically distancing from each other,” Shen said.