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China Orders U.S. to Close Chengdu Consulate in Retaliation for Houston

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  • In a retaliatory move, China has ordered the United States consulate in the city of Chengdu to shut down.
  • On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department ordered China’s consulate in Houston to close by Friday over concerns that it was engaging in intellectual property theft. 
  • Cai Wei, the Chinese Consul General in Houston, told POLITICO that his mission will refuse the U.S. order, though that decision is most likely up to Beijing. 
  • Both moves represent a growing divide between the two nations that encompasses a trade war, disputes over Hong Kong’s reversion of democratic freedoms, and the persecution of Chinese Muslims, among other actions.

China Order U.S. Consulate to Shut Down 

China has ordered the United States to close its consulate office in the city of Chengdu, a retaliatory move spurred by the Trump administration’s previous order to close a Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas.

On Tuesday, employees at China’s Houston-based consulate were spotted burning documents. Hours later, the U.S. State Department officially announced that it had ordered the consulate to close its doors by Friday at 4 p.m. CDT.

Almost immediately after, China vowed to retaliate against the U.S. for the closure, and many media outlets speculated that it would likely close the U.S. consulate in Wuhan—a consulate that drew the ire of China after the U.S. evacuated its employees in January at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, on Friday, it chose Chengdu, and like the consulate in Houston, Chengdu was given three days to shut down.

The Chengdu American Center, along with three other U.S. consulates in China and the embassy in Beijing, has remained open with skeleton crews. Reportedly, the Chengdu mission is staffed by about 15 U.S. diplomats and boasts political, economic, and agricultural departments. It also issues visas.

When China announced the Chengdu consulate’s closure, the office was met with a flurry of police outside its building. In fact, the situation drew so much curiosity that 13 million people watched state broadcaster CCTV’s live stream from outside the consulate. 

In a statement, China’s Foreign Ministry called the move “legitimate and necessary,” blaming the Trump administration for widening the scope of the two countries’ dispute to include diplomatic offices. 

“The current situation between China and the United States is something China does not want to see, and the responsibility rests entirely with the United States,” the statement reads. “We once again urge the U.S. to immediately revoke the erroneous decision to create necessary conditions for the return of bilateral relations to normal.”

As to why Chengdu was chosen over the seemingly likely candidate of Wuhan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Friday that U.S. staff in Chengdu had “interfered in China’s internal affairs and harmed China’s national security interests.” 

Wang’s comments likely refer to U.S. interest in the Tibet Autonomous Region, a region covered by the Chengdu consulate’s area of responsibility. It’s also a region populated by non-ethnic Chinese minorities that are especially vulnerable to Beijing’s rule.

Notably, Beijing has placed tight restrictions on Tibet and currently prohibits access to American diplomats, journalists, and tourists. 

Is China Refusing to Close the Houston Consulate?

In an interview with POLITICO, Cai Wei, the Chinese Consul General in Houston, said that his mission will refuse to close by the Friday deadline. 

“Today, we are still operating normally, so we will see what will happen tomorrow,” he said to the outlet.

Beijing has asked the Trump administration to rescind its order to close the Houston consulate, though that outcome remains unlikely. Still, the Chinese government alleges that the move violates international law. In fact, both sides have now accused the other of acting against the Vienna convention, which governs diplomatic relations between states.

Even though Cai is the head of Houston’s consulate, he is likely unable to make the call on whether or not his mission will remain open and disobey U.S. orders. According to experts, that authority falls to Beijing. 

“I would be very surprised if the consulate itself can decide without listening to Beijing,” Ho-Fung Hung, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told POLITICO. “They must be waiting for orders from Beijing with respect to what to do, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Beijing and the U.S. have been [talking] through the backchannels, discussing the situation.”

“Beijing might give instruction to the consulate at the last minute on what to do,” he added. 

Chinese Nationals Accused of U.S. Intellectual Property Theft

The same day the State Department ordered China’s Houston consulate to close, the Justice Department charged two former Chinese students with attempting to steal coronavirus vaccine research in Texas. 

In fact, the Justice Department even alleges that those nationals were instructed to steal U.S. intellectual property by the Chinese Ministry of State Security, the counterintelligence agency of the People’s Republic of China.

Following the announcement of the charges, China reissued a travel advisory for Chinese students in the U.S., warning them that they could face arbitrary interrogations, the confiscation of personal belongings, and potential detentions.

On Friday, the U.S. released a nearly identical message for Americans in China, warning that Americans are at a “heightened risk of arbitrary detention.”

“U.S. citizens may be subjected to prolonged interrogations and extended detention for reasons related to ‘state security,’” the message said.

Additionally, the Justice Department has charged four other Chinese researchers with visa fraud for concealing government ties. Those charges, filed Thursday, have already resulted in the arrests of three of the researchers. The other is believed to be taking refuge at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, California.

The Justice Department has accused these researchers of being part of a larger plot by the Chinese government to steal American research.

U.S.-China Deteriorating Relationship 

Both moves come amid a deepening divide between the two powerhouses, one that encompasses a trade war, sanctions on lawmakers and journalists, the deterioration of freedoms in Hong Kong, forced labor camps and abuse against Chinese Muslims, and even TikTok of all things. 

In fact, analysts claim the relationship between the U.S. and China—the world’s two largest economies—is the worst it has been since before 1979, the year the U.S. formally recognized the People’s Republic of China. 

“The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday at California’s Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “We must not continue it. We must not return to it. Today, China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. . . . If the free world doesn’t change Communist China, Communist China will change us.”

In that same speech, Pompeo accused the consulate of being “hub of spying and [intellectual property] theft.” 

Foreign Minister Wang responded on Friday, saying that Pompeo was “filled with ideological bias and a Cold War mentality.”

Also on Friday, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tx.) said that the State Department’s decision to close the Houston consulate because of concerns over intellectual theft is a reminder that the Chinese are “not good actors.”

“What we know is that the Chinese have used consulates like this one, and this one might have been their primary hub, to engage in intellectual property [theft], hacking, influence operations, all of the above,” Crenshaw told Fox News.

“…the burning of documents is what occurs after the fact. Once you decide to close an embassy or a consulate like that, they’re going to burn all the evidence and that’s exactly what they did,” he added. 

Cai, however, has rejected such claims, telling POLITICO, “We have never done this. What we have done is very legal and follows the law and normal practice.”

See what others are saying: (POLITICO) (Associated Press) (BBC)

International

Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders

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Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.


Azovstal Waves the White Flag

Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.

The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.

It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.

Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.

Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.

Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.

Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands

After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.

The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.

Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.

The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.

The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.

It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)

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Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls

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Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.


Hundreds Make It Out Alive

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.

People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.

The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.

Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.

“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”

63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.

“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.

Putin’s Plans Go Poorly

In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.

On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.

The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”

Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.

After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.

“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.

On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.

Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.

The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”

“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.

Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.

See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)

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Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished

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The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.


Settlers Get Ready to Move in

On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.

“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.

The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.

The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.

In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”

“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.

In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.

Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land

On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.

Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.

The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s

“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Peace Now) (Associated Press)

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