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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 Orders Social Media Sites To Block Calls for Navalny Protests

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  • Shortly after his arrest on Sunday, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for protests to take place on Jan. 23 and was met with a wave of support online.
  • In response, the government ordered tech giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and Russian-centric VK to “block all publications with calls to demonstrate on the 23rd.”
  • TikTok has already deleted 38% of posts with such calls while VK and YouTube have deleted 50%, and Instagram has removed 17%.

Navalny Calls for Protests

Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia and subsequent arrest earlier this week has set off a chain of events in the country.

Since his arrest, Navalny has called for protests to occur on Jan. 23. Now, Russian authorities are taking precautions and arresting his allies in an effort to slow down the momentum of the looming demonstrations. Among their many demands are that Navalny be released.

Throughout the week, thousands of posts shared by younger Russians have raged across social media asking that people partake in the protests. The reach of those posts, however, have been curtailed by the government.

Social media tech giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and the Russian-centric VK were ordered by the Russian government to “block all publications with calls to demonstrate on the 23rd.”

Roskomnadzor, the Russian communications watchdog, later stated, “Internet sites will be brought to administrative responsibility in connection with the dissemination of information prohibited by law and aimed at attracting minors to participate in unauthorized mass public events.”

“Participation in such events is in violation of the established procedure, including in a pandemic, and carries risks of harm to life and health,” it added.

Censorship Payoff Unknown

For many of the sites, which are often seen as a way to promote free speech in regimes that are far more restrictive, the order puts them in an awkward position. Still, many have already complied, at least to some extend.

According to Roskomnadzor, Tiktok has deleted 38% of videos calling for minors to attend the protests. VK and YouTube have both deleted 50% of similar posts, while Instagram has removed 17% of posts that violate the regulations.

It’s unclear to what extent this censorship will have on stopping Russians from attending tomorrow’s protests; however, some of the nation’s largest protests in modern history have been organized by Navalny.

See what others are saying: (Moscow Times) (Associated Press) (Reuters)

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Accusations Against Chinese Actress Shine Light on the Nation’s Surrogacy Laws

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  • Chinese actress Zheng Shuang is facing major backlash after her former partner, Zhang Heng, accused her of abandoning her two children born through U.S.-based surrogates.
  • Beyond public outcry and losing brand deals, Zheng is likely facing legal consequences after a Chinese government agency said that using a legal loophole to obtain a surrogate from abroad was “definitely not innocent.” 
  • Zheng denies the claims and hasn’t confirmed if the children are actually hers, although she’s listed as their mother on their birth certificates.
  • As for the children in question, Zhang has been taking care of them in the U.S.

American-Based Surrogacy Cause Controversy

Chinese social media users have launched into debates surrounding how the rich and elite circumvent domestic laws in order to obtain surrogate services.

The latest controversy is surrounding actress Zheng Shuang. Though she has never confirmed this publicly, Zheng allegedly went to the U.S. with her-now-ex Zhang Heng and had two children with the help of American surrogates. However, on Monday, Zhang accused Zheng of abandoning the children and leaving him to take care of them in the U.S. The couple reportedly broke up before the babies were born due to Zhang’s alleged infidelity.

According to the South China Morning Post, Zhang’s friend released a voice recording on the Chinese platform NetEase Entertainment. In it, Zhang and Zheng are allegedly having a discussion with their parents over what to do with the then-unborn children. Zheng’s father suggested that they abandon the children at the hospital, while Zheng reportedly expressed annoyance that they could not be aborted so late in pregnancy.

Legal Grey Zone Likely Won’t Help

Beyond public outcries, Zheng lost a recent brand deal with Prada that she signed just eight days before the accusations were made. Additionally, other brand partners, such as Aussie, have distanced themselves from the actress. She also faces multiple awards she has won being revoked as well as potential legal consequences.

Currently, surrogacy is illegal in China; however, the laws have a legal grey zone. Technically, providing surrogacy is what is illegal, but obtaining one from abroad is not explicitly mentioned, even if it goes against the spirit of the law.

The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party commented on the situation in a Weibo video post, saying that using this legal loophole to get a surrogacy was “definitely not innocent.” 

“Surrogacy is banned in China as it uses women’s uteruses as a tool and sells life as a commercial product.,” it continued. “As a Chinese citizen, the act of traveling to the US on a legal loophole is not abiding the law.” 

Following the post, companies like Blued, a gay dating app in China, took down sections of their apps that helped users set up services with surrogacy firms overseas.

Surrogacy is a controversial subject in China, with many actors and actresses obtaining them overseas, but many social media users across the country are against the practice. Officially, the government claims that it “overlooks life” and “tramples the bottom line [of human morality].

Zheng has denied claims that she abandoned any children, and has never confirmed whether or not she actually has any, although she is listed as the mother on the children’s birth certificates.

As for the children in question, even though Zheng’s father suggested abandoning them in the hospital, her ex has been taking care of them in the U.S.

See What Others Are Saying: (South China Morning Post) (Straits Times) (New York Times)

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American Influencer Kristen Gray To Be Deported From Bali

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  • In a viral Twitter thread, influencer Kristen Gray encouraged people to move to Bali like she did while promoting her eBook and other resources on how to do so amid COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Many criticized her for encouraging an influx of travelers during the pandemic. She also sparked conversations about gentrification and was slammed for falsely characterizing Indonesia as queer-friendly.
  • The local government promised to deport her Tuesday, arguing that selling her book and offering paid consultations on traveling to Bali violated the purpose of her visitor stay permit. They also say she was “spreading information that could unsettle the public.”
  • “I am not guilty. I have not overstayed my visa. I have not made money in Indonesian rupiah in Indonesia,” Gray told reporters. “I put out a statement about LGBT and I am being deported because of LGBT.”

Kristen Gray Goes Viral

Officials in Indonesia said Tuesday that they will deport Kristen Gray, an American influencer who has caused international outrage in the last week.

Gray moved to Bali with her girlfriend in 2019 with plans to stay for six months. In reality, the couple ended up staying much longer because of the coronavirus pandemic, and in a viral Twitter thread, Gray shared how positive their experience has been.

Gray pointed to several benefits of moving to Bali in her posts, like its safety, low cost of living, luxury lifestyle, as well as its queer-friendly and Black communities.

She also encouraged others to make the same move and promoted their $30 eBook “Our Bali Life Is Yours” for tips on how to do it. “We include direct links to our visa agents and how to go about getting to Indonesia during COVID,” she even wrote in one post.

Backlash

The thread sparked outrage for encouraging an influx of travelers to a country that has closed its borders over the worsening pandemic. On top of that, it sparked conversations about the gentrification of neighborhoods there.

Bali is a major tourist destination for Americans, Europeans, and Australians in particular, and like areas all over the world, it has suffered from the loss in visitors this year.

However, many online noted that locals have been steadily priced out of certain areas of the island as foreigners open businesses to cater to tourists. Others argue that poorly regulated development is also destroying industries that Balinese people have historically relied on.

Aside from those criticisms, many people also took issue with Gray characterizing Bali as a queer-friendly when the reality for locals is far different.

“It well may be the case for you. However, please recognize that it is because a) you’re a foreigner and b) you have economic leverage since the Indonesian local community is financially dependent on keeping you happy so they don’t mess with you,” a user named Kai Mata said in a viral TikTok.

“Please realize for the rest of us Indonesians on the island, this is not a queer-friendly place. Our gay communities are often shut down and raided by authorities and Indonesia at large has tried to mandate conversion therapy for us the LGBTQ+ Community.

Government Responds

The local government responded to the public outrage over Gray’s thread Tuesday. In a statement, it said selling her book and also offering paid consultations on traveling to Bali violated the purpose of her visitor stay permit, which was valid until January 24.

Gray was also accused of “spreading information that could unsettle the public” by saying Bali is queer-friendly and suggesting foreigners travel there during the pandemic.

According to Reuters, she was being held at an immigration detention facility Tuesday and was to be deported as soon as a flight was available.

In a brief statement to the Balinese press, Gray defended herself. “I am not guilty. I have not overstayed my visa. I have not made money in Indonesian rupiah in Indonesia. I put out a statement about LGBT and I am being deported because of LGBT,” she explained.

Many of her fans believe her and also argue that she is seeing this level of criticism because she is a Black woman.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Reuters) (Vulture)

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